Sunday, October 7, 2007
Schilling strengthens reputation as Mr. Clutch
By Eric Neel ESPN.com
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The headline is written in crooked numbers -- seven stunning runs in the eighth inning of a 9-1 Red Sox victory.
The headline is yet another surprising division series sweep, this one sending the Red Sox on through to the American League Championship Series.
But beneath the headline is an old familiar baseball song, a story as old as the hills. Beneath the headline, the heart of this pasting full of offensive fireworks was Curt Schilling in the postseason being Curt Schilling in the postseason.
Once again, the 40-year-old right-hander took the ball in a big game, and once again, he made the game his own, throwing 76 strikes (almost every one of which was a diving, punishing bit of come-and-get-some) in 100 pitches, and limiting the American League West champions to six hits through seven innings.
There were occasional dramatic moments. The Angels had the bases loaded with two outs and the score tied 0-0 in the third inning, and their shortstop Maicer Izturis led off the seventh with a hopeful double. But in a stadium in which the home fans never could rally their monkey and never seemed to raise their voices to a fever pitch, the outcome never felt in doubt.
"It's one thing when you get billed as a big-game pitcher," said a champagne-drenched Mike Lowell after the game. "But it's another thing to go out there and do it time and time again. He did an outstanding job. He got out of some tough situations early on, and then he was cruising."
Curt Schilling is 9-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 17 career postseason starts.
Before the game, Angels manager Mike Scioscia said that "fastball command" is the key to Schilling's approach. Once upon a time, that meant cranking and locating a plus fastball. "As a young pitcher, I had seven or eight more miles an hour than I do now," Schilling said after the win. "It's different now, a different approach."
On Sunday, that approach meant keeping the ball low and relentlessly working in and out. "In and out, up and down, both sides of the plate," Boston manager Terry Francona said afterward. "He really pitched today."
Where Francona saw something dogged, workmanlike in what Schilling did, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein saw something sublime. "He was an artist out there," Epstein said, his shirt soaked from a bucket of ice water Manny Ramirez rained down on him in the celebratory Boston clubhouse. "I think he wills himself toward perfect execution. It's mentally very tough to do, and he does it. Over and over again."
Schilling's performance was all the more dazzling next to the floodgate lines of Angels relievers Justin Speier and Darren Oliver, who combined, in a single inning, to give up five hits and six runs on 31 pitches. The Red Sox's lineup -- from Dustin Pedroia (who doubled in the inning) to hot-hitting Mike Lowell (who singled and drove in two in the inning) -- can do that to a man, can beat him up, make him look sadly human.
Jered Weaver had "good stuff," Lowell said, but he couldn't avoid getting touched up by Boston's bats either. In the fourth inning, David Ortiz and Ramirez hit back-to-back home runs off him, and by the sixth inning, he was gone from the game.
"We were able to put together professional at-bats against him," Lowell said. "And maybe they had to take him out of there sooner than they would have liked."
I think he wills himself toward perfect execution. It's mentally very tough to do, and he does it. Over and over again.
--Boston GM Theo Epstein
When the Sox have Schilling on the hill, they can be patient, can trust that they're going to be in the game. The veteran's Hall of Fame postseason pedigree grows stronger by the start.
"We're just trying to win games, and whatever I can do in the mix is great, but how we do it is not really relevant anymore for me," he said matter-of-factly afterward.
He isn't superhuman, of course, but it's hard to remember that the way he rises up under pressure.
"He is special," said a giddy Julio Lugo as the postgame celebration raged on. "He's been one of the best of all time, you know. He's going to give us a chance every time he goes out there. What more can you ask for?"
On this day, for the Red Sox, an ordinary, run-of-the-mill, bit of Schilling magic was more than enough.
Eric Neel writes for Page 2 on ESPN.com.