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At last, Sox have a blast

Schilling in complete control during rout

ATLANTA -- Curt Schilling made it as clear as the jewels on his World Series ring. With the Red Sox plummeting toward irrelevance -- and their fans figuratively preparing to mark the Fourth of July by plunging en masse from bridges across New England -- Schilling declared of the team's recent crisis: "Somebody, somewhere has to figure out how to turn it around."

Why not him?

Who better than the big-game aficionado to brush off a four-game losing streak as if it were just another ant approaching his holiday picnic basket.

Just when Sox manager Terry Francona began talking about baseball as if it were a potentially fatal passion -- "I love it, but it will kill you," Francona said of coping with the recent calamities -- Schilling stopped the slide by going the distance and shackling the Braves, 6-1, before a record crowd of 51,831 at Turner Field.

"We desperately needed to win tonight," Francona said. "He understood the situation and he intended to finish that game from pitch one."

Not that Schilling acted alone. On the day general manager Theo Epstein arrived bearing good will ("I still believe in this team," he declared) and Kevin Millar tried yet another slump-busting gimmick (shaving his bleached-blond hair), Nomar Garciaparra (3 for 4 with a homer) took a giant step toward silencing the restless hordes who blasted him for resting his aching Achilles' tendon Thursday in the Bronx, and Doug Mirabelli pulled off a dandy impersonation of Johnny Bench by smacking a grand slam filling in for the fatigued Jason Varitek, who had caught two straight marathons.

But Schilling was the impresario of the revival festival. Providing crucial relief for the overtaxed Sox relievers, he pitched his second complete game of the season, scattering six hits and a walk in allowing the lone run. His last five wins have followed Sox losses as he has emerged as the stopper in chief.

"I didn't expect to be pitching to end a lot of streaks this year the way this club's put together," Schilling said. "But that's one reason they got me, I think, is to make a difference hopefully overall but in the smaller picture in a situation like this. I take a lot of pride in that."

Schilling, who struck out 10, improved to 11-4 and lowered his ERA to 3.07 on the eve of almost certainly landing a spot on the American League All-Star team.

"He told us before the game he was going to go nine," said Johnny Damon, who launched a solo homer for Boston's second run. "He knew how huge this was and he stepped up for us."

Damon's homer leading off the sixth was helpful. But Garciaparra was huge, homering off Atlanta starter John Thomson in the second inning to give the Sox a sorely needed lead. Garciaparra has gone 6 for 9 and played flawlessly in the field since his night off, a rest for which he was roundly excoriated.

"He's been taking a lot of ripping, but it's not deserved," Damon said. "He goes out and plays and he's going to help us down the stretch. I'm very happy he got us going. There are many more good things to see from Nomar in a Red Sox uniform this year and hopefully next year."

Mirabelli provided some magic of his own. Summoned on short notice to work with Schilling, who expects intense preparation from his catchers, Mirabelli not only handled Schilling seamlessly but provided the biggest hit of the night to break the game open.

"We had so much pregame work to go over every single hitter," Mirabelli said. "You want to get that pitch he wants because you don't want to have him out there shaking his head all night. That's where the most pressure on me was."

But with two outs in the sixth and the Sox leading, 2-0, Mirabelli stepped in against Thomson with the bases loaded after consecutive singles by Manny Ramirez, Garciaparra, and Bill Mueller. Then Mirabelli waged an seven-pitch standoff before Thomson fired the eighth pitch, a 93-mile-an hour heater.

"You just battle and battle and finally get the at-bat in your favor and just commit to one pitch," Mirabelli said of laying for the fastball. "It just happened to hit my barrel right."

Did it ever. The ball sailed over the center-field wall for a grand slam and a 6-0 cushion for Schilling.

"That was probably the best at-bat I've seen him have since I've been here," Damon said. "And he came up with the biggest hit of the night."

Not that Schilling needed a lot of run support. Sure, he gave the Braves some chances, as he did in the first inning when Nick Green doubled to the left-field corner with one out. As he did again when Andruw Jones doubled to left-center with two out in the second inning. And as he did when he walked J.D. Drew leading off the fourth.

But only one of those runners advanced as far as the next base (Drew stole second). In each case, Schilling thoroughly dominated the Braves to close out the innings.

He was even more impressive in the fifth after Charles Thomas doubled and Thomson singled Thomas to third with one out. Schilling then mowed down Rafael Furcal and Green on six straight pitches, fanning each with 96-mile-an-hour gas.

"That was a situation," Schilling said, "where we reached back a little bit and put a little extra on the ball."

The Braves broke through only in the sixth inning when Drew doubled leading off, moved to third on a ground out by Chipper Jones, and scored on Adam LaRoche's two-out, broken-bat infield single, making it 6-1.

No sweat. The Sox were back on track, at least for a night.

"We have a good team," Francona said. "We haven't been showing that lately, but you've got to start somewhere. Hopefully, tonight's the start of a real good run for us."

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