KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- With the Red Sox mired in a four-game losing skid, David Ortiz reported for last night's game against the Royals to discover Terry Francona missing. The media had gathered on schedule in the manager's office for their daily briefing, but Francona's desk was unoccupied, as if it were a memorial to a lost skipper.
"What happened?" Ortiz inquired as bench coach Brad Mills respectfully moderated the briefing from a separate chair next to Francona's desk.
Had someone gone nuts? Was a four-game flop that dropped the Sox 3 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the American League East faster than a free fall off the Sagamore Bridge really enough to cost Francona his job?
Ortiz appeared perplexed until he was assured Francona would return from his son's high school graduation in New Jersey in time for the game. The slugger was so pleased when the skipper returned that he promised to try to deliver Francona a graduation gift.
"I'm going to try to do something for you tonight," Ortiz told the manager.
And so he did. All Ortiz needed to help shake the Sox out of their early June swoon and further brighten Francona's day was crank a first-inning fastball from Darrell May for a two-run homer. The blast propelled his mates toward an 8-4 victory before 29,968 at Kauffman Stadium. Mark Bellhorn and Kevin Youkilis also hit two-run homers to help the Sox climb back within 2 1/2 games of the Yankees.
The outcome could hardly have been sweeter for the fatigued Francona, who arrived at his home near Philadelphia in the middle of the night and hurried back to Kansas City soon after he witnessed his son, Nick, snag his diploma.
"As proud as I was of my son, I was kind of happy about the win also," Francona said. "We needed desperately to win tonight and we did, so that made the day good."
The trio of home run hitters got some help from Gabe Kapler and Pokey Reese, who belted the first back-to-back triples for the Sox in nearly five years to chip in another run.
Together, the Sox batsmen helped make life easier for Curt Schilling, who abruptly halted the worst streak of the season by Sox starters (they rolled up a 7.98 ERA over the previous nine games). In the 350th start of his career, Schilling harnessed the Royals to three runs on six hits and a walk over seven innings as he improved to 7-3 with a 3.07 ERA, the league's third best.
"We knew Schilling was going to be on," said Johnny Damon, who made two superb running catches on the warning track in center field to help preserve the victory. "He's been that go-to guy who stops [losing] streaks."
Schilling, who earned his 170th career victory, praised the team's rejuvenated offense as well as its defense, which played flawlessly behind him.
"That cures a lot of ills," he said.
With the Sox keenly aware of their need to score early and relieve some of the pressure on their beleaguered starters, Ortiz stepped up after Bellhorn set the table by lacing a single to left with one out in the first inning. Not that Ortiz's shot should have come as much of a surprise. In his last eight games since May 28, the slugger has collected six hits -- two doubles and four homers -- to enhance his American League lead in doubles (24) and extra-base hits (36).
"Somebody's got to get the first one out of the way," he said of the homer. "We did and we kept on going. With Schilling on the mound doing his job, that's the way you win games."
Despite the early lead, Schilling encountered a little resistance as Mike Sweeney walloped a 92-mile-an-hour heater in the bottom of the first inning for a 445-foot solo shot, slicing the lead to 2-1.
"I'm a little disappointed I went out and gave up one [run]," Schilling said. "But we settled in after that, kept the pressure on them, and played great defense."
Bellhorn helped to apply the pressure. The night after he snapped his seasonlong streak of walking or striking out at least once in 52 straight games, Bellhorn followed his first-inning single with a two-run, opposite-field homer to right-center off May in the third inning. Bellhorn drove in Damon, who reached on an error by the first baseman, Sweeney, leading off.
The homer was the second of the season that the switch-hitting Bellhorn has struck batting righthanded.
"I've always thought I was a better righthanded hitter," he said, "but it's taken me a while to get comfortable."
Staked to a 4-1 edge, Schilling all but shut down the Royals from there. After Sweeney's homer in the first, only one Kansas City batter advanced past first base (Tony Graffanino was stranded at third in the third inning) until Ken Harvey doubled leading off the seventh.
With Schilling rolling, the Sox benefited in the fourth inning from the oddity of consecutive triples by Kapler and Reese, which made it 5-1. Youkilis flashed his pop in the fifth inning after Kevin Millar singled to left with two out. Youkilis jolted the next pitch from May over the wall in left to make it 7-1. And the Sox surged to an 8-1 advantage in the seventh when Jason Varitek singled home Manny Ramirez, who had doubled.
Only then did Schilling run into more trouble. Harvey's double leading off the seventh gave the Royals a glimmer of hope. The glimmer grew brighter when Schilling issued his first walk of the game, missing on a 3-2 pitch to Matt Stairs. And after Joe Randa moved up the runners by grounding out to second, Benito Santiago lofted a sacrifice fly to center to drive in Harvey before Angel Berroa singled home to Stairs to make it 8-3.
"I'm disappointed in the way I finished and continue to be disappointed with the way I'm pitching after the sixth inning," Schilling said. "But it's a win. It feels good. We'd like to get on a little roll here and get back to the team we know we are."
The Royals scored their final run on Santiago's two-out homer in the ninth of Keith Foulke. But it hardly mattered to the Sox, who needed the victory as much as Francona needed some sleep.
"It was a nice way to win," Reese said. "Hopefully, it will carry over."