Forget the Yankees, Angels, A's, Twins, and anyone else you might think stands in the way. Last night was all about the Red Sox regaining their footing, finding their way, the baseball equivalent of Alan Greenspan saying something that stabilizes the dollar.
Curt Schilling was The Stabilizer. On a night when nothing short of transcendent would suffice, Schilling was more than up to the task. The fact that he got a no-decision, instead of his richly deserved 21st win, is of consequence perhaps only to those who think 21 wins is a lot more than 20. It wasn't his fault, that's for sure. He was magnificent.
The Red Sox escaped from Fenway Park with a dramatic 3-2, ninth-inning victory last night in a game that had one dominating theme for eight innings -- brilliant pitching by Schilling and Rodrigo Lopez -- and more than a few plot twists in a bizarro ninth. The Sox had it, gave it away, and then got it back on a two-out, two-run single by Mark Bellhorn off Orioles closer Jorge Julio.
The victory didn't get the Sox any closer to the Yankees, but it was a huge lift for a team that was one out away from what would have been a devastating and deflating fourth straight loss. Johnny Damon seemed to sum it up best, saying, "If we had lost this one, it would have absolutely crushed us. This was big."
How big? We can start with Schilling, who was a beast. Over eight innings, he yielded three singles. He struck out 14, the first Sox pitcher to record that many K's in a game since Pedro Martinez fanned 14 against Toronto July 1, 2002. He threw 114 pitches, 90 for strikes, and left the game pounding his glove after whiffing the last three batters in the eighth inning.
"That was as emotional as I've ever seen Curt," said Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "I was emotional just watching him. That was a big eighth inning for him."
At the time, the score was 0-0, because Baltimore starter Lopez was matching Schilling, inning for inning, goose egg for goose egg. He had a 3-0 record against the Red Sox this season and looked quite capable of adding another win. As manager Terry Francona noted, "Lopez has just tied us in knots. And I can see why. He really pitches."
Then the Sox used a little gamesmanship in the eighth, asking that Lopez's hat be checked. The nerveless Lopez got unnerved, walking the first two hitters. He was gone. The Sox loaded the bases with one out, and pinch hitter Kevin Millar, in a great at-bat against nasty lefthander B.J. Ryan, delivered a sacrifice fly to right. That made it 1-0 -- and that should have been it.
Francona called for Keith Foulke to close it in the ninth, and Schilling had no problem with the decision.
"That was it. I had pushed it," Schilling said. "We're at a point in time in the season where our bullpen is obviously one of our strengths."
Foulke had converted 16 straight saves, so it seemed like a wise decision. As Varitek said, "I'll take Keith Foulke, any day."
But Foulke couldn't finish the deal, depriving Schilling of a 21st win and nearly costing the Sox the game. Javy Lopez jumped on a 3-and-2 changeup with two outs and sent it into the eastbound lane of the Mass. Pike. The homer, the second in as many nights off Foulke, scored Miguel Tejada, who had singled, and the Orioles had a 2-1 lead. Fenway went from raucous to silent in a heartbeat.
"I'm disappointed with the way I pitched," Foulke said. "I thought a couple of pitches [to Lopez] could have been strike three. But they weren't. I've got a job to do and I tried to get him with a 3-and-2 changeup and I don't think I fooled anybody."
When the Sox came to bat in the ninth, many expected to see Julio, who had set them down in order the night before. But Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli elected to stick with Ryan. But Ryan created a mess by walking pinch hitter Kevin Youkilis and then yielding a Wall double to Bill Mueller, who had four hits in the game.
Still no Julio. Ryan bore down and got pinch hitter David McCarty on a popup to first and then, in a reprise from the night before, struck out Damon. Bellhorn, who already had two strikeouts, was next. Mazzilli went to Julio.
"He did what he needed to do, he just got behind," Mazzilli said of Julio. "But we're going to live and die with our best out there. And that's what we did."
Said Bellhorn, "I wasn't sure who I was going to face. Ryan had had some success against me in the past."
Bellhorn worked the count to 2-and-0, took a strike, and then drilled a shot to right-center that eluded Larry Bigbie and the Red Sox bench erupted, pouring onto the field, releasing three-plus days of pent-up emotion and adrenaline.
"I knew I hit it pretty good," said Bellhorn, who was batting a lusty .128 against the Orioles (6 for 47) at the time. "But there was a little doubt as to whether it would fall in."
It did. The runners scored easily. And, for one night at least, things seemed normal on Yawkey Way, even if everything had come about in a most abnormal fashion.