Keeping hope alive, Curt Schilling last night tested his injured right ankle with a new high-top cleat in a bullpen session that Red Sox manager Terry Francona described as encouraging.
The Sox hope Schilling can find a way to pitch with his dislocated peroneal ankle tendon and help them if their American League Championship Series against the Yankees goes longer than five games. In this scenario, the Sox would win behind Derek Lowe in Game 5 and Pedro Martinez in Game 6, then send Schilling out for a winner-take-all seventh game.
"He actually did pretty well, well enough where we are just leaving the door open for his season not to be over," Francona said. "But that's the extent of it right now."
With his ankle slightly numbed by the anesthetic Marcaine, Schilling threw off the bullpen mound for about 20 minutes amid a steady rain. He did not use any bracing other than the high-top shoe, customized by Reebok, though he also experimented with a low-top cleat because the high-top was too small.
Francona said Schilling looked more comfortable than he did when the Yankees thumped him for six runs over 2 2/3 innings in a 10-7 loss in Game 1. Schilling also long-tossed in the outfield as part of his regular extended side session.
"He threw with a lot more of a normal stride than he did in New York, which just by itself was encouraging," Francona said. "The ball came out of his hand, even in long toss, different than if he was nursing a little bit."
The Sox were eager to see how Schilling's ankle felt today after the workout. He was too sore Thursday to throw in the bullpen.
"We were encouraged," Francona said, "but that's the first step of a process to see if he can come back and pitch."
The next step would be an additional bullpen session, most likely tomorrow, giving Schilling an opportunity to test the ankle with other medical equipment, if necessary. The sheath surrounding his tendon ruptured Sept. 26, allowing the tendon to slip out of its groove and rub against the bone.
Schilling was closely observed in last night's session by a number of team officials, including general manager Theo Epstein, medical director Bill Morgan, pitching coach Dave Wallace, and assistant trainer Chris Correnti. Schilling was not available after the session, but Francona said he consulted with Wallace and Correnti.
"After talking to Wally and Chris, this gave us reason to be optimistic, watching his stride in the bullpen compared to his game," Francona said.
Though Schilling did not exert the kind of force he would need to succeed under game conditions, he experienced the clicking sensation of his dislocated tendon snapping against bone as he drove off the mound.
"We all know what's wrong with him," Francona said. "But if he can manage it, that might be more than half the battle, and he seemed at least in the bullpen session to manage it, so we'll see how it goes from there."
Schilling plans to undergo surgery to repair the sheath around the tendon as soon as the season ends or he determines he can no longer pitch this year. The Sox would not want him to wait since the recovery takes about three months, which would extend nearly to the start of spring training. He has worn a stablizing boot off the field.
Among professional athletes, injuries to the peroneal tendon appear to have been most common in recent years to basketball players, including Patrick Ewing (2000), Matt Harpring (1999), Detlef Schrempf ('97), and Moses Malone ('95). One of the few major league baseball players who have required surgery on their peroneal tendons in recent years was Chili Davis, then of the Yankees, in '98.
If Schilling's ankle does not improve enough for him to make a full start, Francona indicated the Sox would be unlikely to use Schilling in a relief role.
"I just don't think that's realistic," Francona said. "If he can't pitch, we'd be putting him in a precarious spot. We even talked about that with him, but I just don't know that it's very realistic or fair. He'll either be able to pitch or he won't pitch."