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Roaring 20

Schilling hits mark, Sox head to NY on high

Raise a cup to the computer nerds. If not for the number crunchers on Yawkey Way who were savvy enough last November to allay Curt Schilling's fears about a fly ball pitcher thriving at Fenway Park, he may never have agreed to waive his no-trade clause to join the Red Sox in their quest for a world championship.

Instead, Schilling may have sent Sox execs Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer back from their Thanksgiving negotiations at his Arizona home clutching only doggie bags. And Schilling never would have savored a moment as sweet as he enjoyed last night when he became baseball's first 20-game winner of the season by stifling the Devil Rays amid an 11-4 rout at his new happy place in the Fens.

Hail the knights of the computer keyboards. While Schilling improved to 11-1 in the Hub and 20-6 overall, he stayed alive in the Cy Young race, gave his mates a rousing send-off for their weekend showdown at Fort Steinbrenner, the Bronx, and became the first Sox pitcher to win 20 games in his inaugural season in Boston since Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley went 20-8 in 1978.

Schilling credited the computer data in part for persuading him to join the Sox. He became the team's first 20-game winner since Pedro Martinez (20-4) and Derek Lowe (21-8) in 2002.

"Petey had some of the best seasons in the history of the game in this ballpark," Schilling said. "It's a challenge, but it can be done. I've just looked at it as another challenge."

The victory clinched the three-game series for the Sox after they dropped the opener. Unbeaten in their last 10 series, Terry Francona's renegades went from congratulating Schilling after the game to boarding a late-night train to Gotham, where they will try to narrow their 3 1/2-game deficit against the division-leading Yankees, who were idle. The Sox maintained their 5 1/2-game lead in their wild-card dash with the Angels, who won, 6-1, in Seattle.

"This is why we've been playing hard all year, to get to this situation and see what we're made of," said Johnny Damon, one of the offensive stars of the game. "We want to go in [to New York] and show them what we have."

Schilling reached his milestone by allowing the Rays four runs on eight hits over 7 2/3 innings as he avenged his only loss of the season at Fenway, an 8-3 defeat to Tampa Bay Aug. 9. In the process, he won a seventh straight start for the first time in his career. And as he left the mound, he raised his cap to acknowledge a thunderous standing ovation led by principal owner John W. Henry in his field box.

Then Schilling set his sights immediately on the Bronx.

"All the subplots for me going into the game were the chance to go into New York this weekend and really make that series matter," he said. "It was a big game, and it felt like it."

The Sox celebrated Schilling's feat by stuffing lefthander Mark Hendrickson, the former NBA forward who started for the Rays, and an array of Tampa Bay relievers. Damon and Kevin Millar each homered and knocked in four runs to pace the attack, and Mark Bellhorn, Jason Varitek, and Kevin Youkilis each drove in a run.

Millar's two-run shot in the seventh inning was Boston's 200th homer of the season, marking the first time in franchise history the Sox have launched at least 200 homers in consecutive seasons (they slugged 238 last year). And Damon made it 201 as he swatted a three-run shot to cap the game-breaking, five-run seventh.

With the onslaught, the Sox increased their run production for Schilling to 7.57 per nine innings, tops in the majors.

"Things have to match up very well for pitchers to accomplish something like that," Varitek said of Schilling's 20 wins. "He knows the longer you keep your team in the game, the more chances we have offensively to get at another team's starting pitcher."

Make no mistake, Schilling understands the formula.

"This offense has been phenomenal," he said. "Every night I take the ball, my goal is to keep the game close and put people away in consistent fashion to make sure the game is tight going in the sixth or seventh inning to allow the offense to do their thing. And every time I've taken the ball, they've done that."

Millar said the Sox were happy to help, though he cited Schilling's contribution as well.

"Wins or losses for a pitcher, they're almost luck," Millar said. "It depends who you're matching up against, but he's done a great job making the adjustment to the American League and that's not easy. He's been amazing."

While Schilling, a perfectionist, already has fallen short of his goal -- "to win all 35" starts -- Francona said Schilling certainly appreciates his third 20-win season in four years.

"I'm sure it means a lot to him," Francona said. "It should. It means a lot to everybody here. But at the same time, that's why we brought him here, to be the type of pitcher he's been, and he has not let us down one bit."

Schilling, who allowed only one run while firing 89 pitches through seven innings, returned to the mound in the eighth even after the Sox surged to an 11-1 lead. But while Francona was willing to let Schilling try to finish his 30th start of the season, he relieved him after the Rays scored three times while he threw 15 more pitches in the eighth. Terry Adams recorded the final four outs.

Francona knew better than to engage Schilling in a discussion of how he felt about leaving the game.

"I don't ever ask him that," the manager said. "It's not a good conversation."

Francona, who had been tight-lipped about the six remaining games against the Yankees, addressed the issue after the game.

"We have played ourselves into a situation where this is a huge series," he said. "I know the Yankees-Red Sox tradition and all this stuff that goes with it, but we're actually within striking distance if we go in and do what we are capable of doing. It's an opportunity for us."

Schilling said he was disappointed he was not starting one of the three games. He has not pitched in the Bronx this year.

"I've missed Yankee Stadium," he said. "I'm looking as forward to pitching in that park as I do in pitching here and all that comes with that. But I feel pretty good about the guys who are going there and the way they've been throwing."

Let the games begin.

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