That could be all, folks. Barring a last-minute breakthrough, Curt Schilling may have thrown his last pitch in trying to help the Red Sox end their 86-year championship famine.
The Sox yesterday scratched Schilling from his scheduled start Sunday in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees, saying the 21-game winner's injured right ankle was too sore for him even to throw in the bullpen. With Derek Lowe tapped as Schilling's probable replacement, team officials clung to a rapidly fraying thread of hope that medical specialists could develop a brace to stabilize Schilling's dislocated ankle tendon. But as long as Schilling remains too sore to test any new apparatus -- including a new custom-made cleat designed by Reebok -- he may be left no other option in the waning days of the playoffs than to undergo season-ending surgery.
Manager Terry Francona said Schilling needs to experiment with any new equipment without the benefit of a painkilling injection in his ankle. Doctors fear a painkiller could mask more serious damage during the test, and Schilling wants to be able to feel his ankle rather than experience numbness when he pitches.
"He's just a little too sore," Francona said after Schilling was examined at Fenway Park while the Sox, winless in Games 1 and 2 of the series, prepared for Game 3 tonight. "The medical staff and training staff will continue to work on Schill, but as far as Sunday goes, he is not our starter. And after that, it's just -- that's as far as we go."
Francona, with his customary dose of optimism, added, "It's not over. He's going to continue to try to prepare."
A Reebok endorser since 1995, Schilling -- pain permitting -- plans to try out the new custom cleat today under the supervision of the Red Sox medical staff. The shoe, a redesigned version of Reebok's Vero baseball cleat that Schilling has worn since the beginning of the season, looks part hi-top sneaker and part baseball cleat.
Reebok pattern engineer Don Jones spent this week figuring out how to increase the ankle support provided by the baseball cleat and stabilize Schilling's foot. A sheath covering two tendons in Schilling's ankle is torn, allowing one of the tendons to slip out of its groove and rub against the bone. Jones added 2 inches of supportive foam padding creating a hi-top version of the cleat. He widened the shoe through the ankle and heel to make room for Schilling's brace.
When Schilling first began having ankle problems during the regular season, Reebok designers widened the ankle area on his right cleat to make room for a brace. Among the brace, the taping, and the new shoe, Reebok's director of promotional footwear Don Gibadlo said, Schilling's foot should be securely held in place.
General manager Theo Epstein, who said Wednesday that Schilling would be done for the year if the Sox were unable to suitably brace his ankle, was not available yesterday, according to team spokesmen. Schilling left the park without speaking to reporters, but he indicated in a phone call afterward to WEEI, the team's flagship radio station, that he would pitch again only if he were fitted with a brace that would allow him to maintain his natural delivery.
"If I can't pitch without altering my mechanics, then we're going to have to win the World Series without me, which is entirely possible for us to do," he said.
If losing the first two games of the series were not troubling enough for the Sox, Schilling's injury deepened the team's predicament. Schilling and Pedro Martinez gave the Sox a 1-2 punch that made them a favorite among many analysts to win the franchise's first world championship since 1918. Schilling was seen as the tone-setter and relished the role, as he demonstrated in a Ford commercial in which he hopped in a F-150 truck, presumably in the Arizona desert, and said he was bound for Boston to break a longstanding curse.
Instead, his ankle broke down when the Sox needed him most. His inability to pitch Sunday left the team no choice but to forge ahead without him.
"You can't let that bother you right now," Alan Embree said. "No matter who we put on the mound, we have to have total faith in him, even if I end up starting Game 7."
Kevin Millar said, "We have an ace, Pedro Martinez. This team is not built around one guy. We can't worry about that. We have to worry about winning the next two games first."
Francona informed Lowe during the workout that he would start Sunday, but the manager left open the possibility that someone else -- most likely Martinez -- would pitch Game 5 if it were pushed back to Monday because of a rainout. Tonight's game appeared in jeopardy of getting washed out.
Martinez is scheduled to start a potential Game 6 Tuesday in New York on five days' rest. Bronson Arroyo is set to face the Yankees tonight, with Tim Wakfield scheduled to start Game 4 tomorrow.
"Weather could dictate some changes," Francona said. "But if everything stays like it's supposed to and we get to Game 5, it's Derek."
Lowe, who was shifted to the bullpen when the Sox opted for a four-man postseason rotation, said he would welcome the opportunity. His only postseason action this year has been pitching the 10th and final inning in the Game 3 Division Series clincher against the Angels at Fenway Park.
"From an individual standpoint, it's been frustrating because you really feel like you haven't helped out as much as you would like," Lowe said. "Now when you get a chance to go out and do what you can do by pitching a good game, you get prepared and look forward to the challenge."
Schilling said the tendon began bothering him while he pitched against the Orioles Sept. 21 at Fenway Park, then became dislocated when he faced the Yankees in his next start, Sept. 26, in the Fens, his final outing of the regular season. He tore the sheath surrounding the peroneal tendon in the seventh inning on his first pitch to Miguel Cairo, the last batter he faced.
Schilling praised team medical director Bill Morgan during his radio call-in for preparing him to pitch Game 1 last week against the Angels in Anaheim. But he said the injury bothered him at times in the 9-3 victory. He allowed the three runs (two earned) over 6 2/3 innings.
"We had some issues in the Anaheim game," Schilling said. "I got injected in the third inning, and it flared up again later in that game. As far as tweaking it on the play where I threw the ball away, it popped a couple of different times because I took a couple of different wrong steps, but that wasn't the trigger."
He indicated his condition worsened after his outing in Anaheim. He rested six days before he next pitched, facing the Yankees in the opener of the Championship Series, a 10-7 loss in which he surrendered six runs in three innings.
"The most serious days were the days following [the Anaheim game] where I had an appreciable amount of swelling and a lot of tenderness and a lot of discomfort," he said. "The two days leading up to the game against the Yankees were by far the best I've had up to this point. I was going into that game incredibly confident that whatever we were dealing with we were going to be able to overcome.
"I had a couple of different times in the bullpen where it was an issue, but I felt like, regardless of how I was throwing at the time, I was going to be able to do what I needed to do to make it right. That's why I took the ball. I thought for sure I was going to be able to answer the bell and unfortunately, hindsight being what it is, I look back now and realize that I could not do that."
All he can do now is hope the soreness subsides enough for him to help if the Sox survive beyond Game 5.
And can a shoe really make a difference?
"You try everything you can," said Dr. Brian McKeon of Pro Sports Orthopedics in Waltham. "You tape the ankle, brace it, you modify the shoe, try different taping techniques. In the long run, he'll probably need surgery. But it doesn't mean the shoe can't help in the short run."
In addition to supporting the ankle, McKeon said, he'd also insert heel wedges into the shoe to keep the foot as flat as possible, minimizing the stress on the tendon to prevent it from dislocating.
Naomi Aoki of the Globe staff contributed to this report.