Curt Schilling lives for this stuff.
He was deprived of a win by a bookkeeping necessity. But anyone who witnessed the 3-2 Red Sox triumph knows how superb the big righthander was in this extremely important game, and who was the true "winning" pitcher in this sensational contest. Losers of three straight, playing a team that has mystified them this season, and facing a certified Red Sox killer in Rodrigo Lopez, the Olde Towne Team needed Schilling's A game.
What they got was his A-plus game. Jerry Remy said it was the best game any Red Sox pitcher has thrown all year, and I don't know about you, but when the Rem Dog barketh, I nod in agreement.
It's not all that often in modern sport that a ball club really gets what it has paid for, but Schilling is the pleasant exception. He came advertised as more than just a great pitcher. He came advertised as a classic staff ace, an archetypical "big game" pitcher whose interest and intensity level rises by the month. In start No. 31, at a critical time, he came up with his best effort of the season.
"During the game," observed general manager Theo Epstein, "he was able to reach back when he needed that little extra, throwing 94 or 95 miles an hour, rather than 92 or 93. He's doing the same thing on a larger scale as the season progresses. He knew this was a big game."
Are you kidding? Schilling had this one pegged from the moment he got out of bed.
"The peak level gets higher as you get later in the year," he explained. "I knew coming into the park today that this was going to be a tight game. I knew the way they've been scoring runs by the touchdown for me all year and the way Lopez has thrown the ball all year, and the way they've played us. I felt like we were going to be in a biter tonight."
In said biter, Schilling was magnificent, throwing 90 strikes out of 114 pitches, walking just one and allowing only two Orioles to reach second base. All night long he simply made people look bad -- very, very bad. There were no complaints about him being helped by umpire Andy Fletcher, either. All 14 of his season-high punchouts were swinging.
The key pitches were his fastball and his splitter. When both are operating at the level they were last night, he is close to unhittable.
He was doing this against a very good lineup. The Orioles may be an incomplete team, and they may be 24 games out of first and 20 1/2 behind the Red Sox, but these guys can hit. Usually.
"We are big-league hitters and we can usually adjust," said Johnny Damon, who walked and scored the eighth-inning run that should have made Schilling a 1-0 winner. "But they couldn't adjust at all on him."
Schilling let the Orioles know what they were in for with a 1-2-3, nine-pitch, eight-strike first. Doug Mientkiewicz helped him out with a diving stop of leadoff man Brian Roberts's shot, and that was the last time a Red Sox fielder had to make an extraordinary effort. The righthander was in charge.
"It was really a lot of fun watching that," said pitching coach Dave Wallace. "He had command of all his pitches. He knew exactly what to do. Prepared, as always. Just a pleasure to watch. He threw a little bit less getting ready down there [i.e. in the bullpen]. That said to me he was ready.
"I've been a victim of a few of those myself," said Dave Roberts, a former Dodger. "He was pitching, not trying to blow guys away. He had them off-balance. He was in complete control."
He had to be. For the Red Sox, Rodrigo Lopez is, as Hubie Brown once said of Larry Bird, a "menace." He came into this game with 35 career wins and an 8-2 record against the Red Sox. He was 3-0 with a 1.06 ERA against Boston this year, and he didn't do much to sully that record last night, being charged only with a hitless run in the eighth, when a Kevin Millar sacrifice fly off set-up man extraordinaire B.J. Ryan brought home Damon.
Schilling already had done all he was going to do, finishing his night's work in theatrical style by striking out the side after Larry Bigbie's single/stolen base in the eighth had given the Orioles an opening.
He didn't fuss with his skipper's decision.
"No," he said. "That was it. I had pushed it. I knew pitch count-wise I was out of there."
Schilling came within one pitch of getting his 21st win, but Javy Lopez intervened with a two-out home run off Keith Foulke. Everything turned out just fine in the bottom of the ninth, when Kevin Youkilis walked, Bill Mueller hit a double off the wall, and Mark Bellhorn lined a two-out shot to right-center off Orioles closer Jorge Julio to provide the Sox with a desperately needed 3-2 victory.
It was a colossal no-decision for Schilling. But the Foulke vulture W in this case was just for the rotisserie crowd. Schilling had accomplished his primary goal.
"From the get-go, it was just one of those games," he said. "I can count on one hand how many times I've had to get into the seventh or eighth inning in a one-run lead or tie game. I wanted to prove to myself, as much as the other 24 guys, that I could outpitch somebody in a tight game, a big game, because I haven't had to do it all year. It was fun."
You know what? This game was the opening night of Curt Schilling's personal second season. You'll see.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.