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Crunch time next in store for Schilling

He's ready for long haul

TORONTO -- The next time Curt Schilling takes the ball for the Red Sox, it will be on the cusp of September, in the opener of a Fenway Park series next Tuesday against the Anaheim Angels, a team as hot as the Sox in August and one as bent as playing in October as the Olde Towne Team.

Sox fans will see for themselves what kind of finishing kick the team's biggest winner has, less than three months from his 38th birthday. If his performance here last night is any barometer, Schilling is apt to resemble the guy who went undefeated after Labor Day 2001, when he won his last seven decisions, including four during Arizona's run to a World Series title. That's the kind of scenario he imagined for himself in a Red Sox uniform when Theo Epstein sat down with the Schillings for Thanksgiving dinner last fall.

"After getting the rust out, my fastball was as good a fastball as I've had all year long," Schilling said after a "minimal effort," pitching 6 1/3 innings in which he allowed a run on seven hits, struck out nine, threw 99 pitches, and left with a nine-run lead in Boston's 11-5 win over the Blue Jays last night at SkyDome.

"My splitter's back. I'm comfortable with my splitter," said Schilling. "We've won 19 games that I've started. I'm very proud of that, and we're not in September yet. On a personal level, I feel good where I'm at. On a team level, I feel very good."

The Sox, having completed a 5-1 trip, return home 5 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the AL East, and percentage points ahead of Anaheim in the wild-card race, pending the outcome of the Angels-Royals game last night.

"We're 5 1/2 back right now," said Schilling, who knew that the Yankees had lost to the Indians last night almost before John Sterling had broadcast the final out.

"I feel a lot like Mike Timlin. I never conceded the division. Everybody wants to point at the fact that this hasn't happened before [the Yankees blowing a lead of this size], but that's not this year, that's not this team, that's not this group of guys. If the 25 guys in this room believe they can accomplish something, they can accomplish it."

Schilling already is 16-6 with a possible seven starts remaining. He has won more games only three times in a big-league career that began in 1988 -- back-to-back 20-win seasons with the Diamondbacks in 2001-2002, and a 17-win season for the last-place Phillies in 1997, Terry Francona's first season as a manager.

"Those games weren't the first games on ESPN every night," Francona said, rolling his eyes. "But he was strong as a horse back then, and he's prepared to pitch a full season now."

The Sox have made the most of a month in which, except for one game against the Twins, a 4-3 loss on Aug. 1, they have played teams out of contention and, in the case of the Devil Rays (5-1), White Sox (4-2), and Blue Jays (5-1), in virtual freefall. The Tigers, whom the Sox beat two out of three times in Detroit, are next, and then comes perhaps the last grueling sequence -- nine consecutive games against the iron of the West, the Angels and Rangers in Boston, the Athletics in Oakland.

Daunting? Sure. But this trip should provide a running start. "Offensively, we hammered the ball," Schilling said. "We pitched and we played good defense, which is the signature of a championship club. Now we've got to go out and do that on a daily basis."

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