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Shining again in spotlight

NEW YORK -- Maybe it's this place . . . where he bled on the mound and carried the Red Sox into the World Series.

Maybe it was the showcase of national television and September/pennant race baseball. We all know Curt Schilling loves the spotlight more than Mick Jagger, Deion Sanders, or Bill O'Reilly.

Maybe he's finally comfortable with the hideous new hair color.

Or maybe it was just time for the big lug to return to dominant, championship form. Maybe his right ankle is finally healed and his fastball is back and the splitter is diving. Maybe the 10-month, post-operation program, with all of its setbacks, rehab assignments, and rough outings has brought Schilling back to where he needs to be at the precise moment the Red Sox need him most.

Asked if the ''arena" contributed to his boffo performance in yesterday's 9-2 win over the Yankees, Schilling said, ''When you come in here and get booed, like they boo me, you'd better dot all your i's and cross all your t's. I've always enjoyed it. This is a different kind of adrenaline."

Schill and manager Terry Francona pledged it would happen this way. They told us not to worry when assorted Tigers, Royals, and Devil Rays cuffed Schilling around like he was Steve Crawford. The Sox never panicked and they never gave up, and yesterday at Yankee Stadium, Schilling stuffed the Bombers on five hits over eight innings in an easy victory that transferred major momentum back to the first-place Red Sox.

Schilling was impressive. He was crisp with his fastball and much improved with his splitter. He needed only eight pitches to get through the first after Manny Ramirez (two-run blast) staked him to a 2-0 lead at the start. He fanned six and walked two. Sixty-nine of his 108 pitches were strikes. It was only his second win as a starting pitcher in 2005. The other one was April 18 when he went five innings, giving up 11 hits and five runs in a 12-7 win over the Blue Jays.

''I thought this was by far the best he's thrown," said Francona. ''I thought his splitter was real sharp, especially over the first five innings. This was way improved over the way he's pitched."

Ever the contrarian, Schilling downplayed the obvious upgrade.

''I didn't feel any different," said the onetime ace in a thoroughly choked corner of the visitors clubhouse (Schill eschewed the interview room, assuring maximum humanity in front of his locker, and thereby annoying some of his teammates). ''It always makes a difference when you have a lead. We used all my pitches and got outs with all of them. We located better today."

Don't be confused by ''we." Like every good politician, Schilling uses the royal ''we" when talking about his efforts over the course of the long campaign. Schill even credited some e-mailers with improving the mechanics of his splitter. Maybe the Sons of Sam Horn can take credit for turning things around for their late-night friend.

''I didn't throw any better or worse than I have," Schilling insisted. ''Physically, I haven't had any problem. That's what's been frustrating. It's just a matter of performance and confidence."

It's been rough sledding for the intergalactic hero of 2004. His November surgery was a major event and the comeback trail has been lined with traps. Schilling had virtually no spring training, his April starts were disappointing, and it became obvious early that he needed to shut down. Then came the rocky return from the bullpen, followed by three ineffective starts against the Royals, Rays, and White Sox.

This was nothing like that. Schilling allowed only one base runner in the first three innings and that came when he dropped a throw from John Olerud as he went over to cover on a routine grounder to first with two out in the third. The first hit came with one out in the fourth when Jason Giambi crushed a 3-and-2 pitch into the third deck. But the Sox were leading, 8-0, when Giambi struck.

Schilling fanned Bernie Williams and Giambi to end the sixth and took a one-hitter into the seventh. New York's second run came when Hideki Matsui cracked a single up the middle with one out in the seventh. Robinson Cano followed with a two-out single to left, but Schilling got John Flaherty on a popup to end the inning.

He'd thrown only 91 pitches when he came out for the eighth. Then he finally cracked. He issued a leadoff walk to local dartboard Matt Lawton, then surrendered back-to-back singles to Derek Jeter and Williams. Mike Timlin started to throw (lot of confidence in Foulkie, eh?), but Schilling stayed in and got 3-4-5 without further damage. There were a lot of hugs and high-fives when he got to the dugout. Young Jonathan Papelbon pitched the ninth.

Sitting alone in Francona's office late in the afternoon, general manager Theo Epstein said, ''The most important pitch for Curt is his fastball. When he has that, he doesn't have to worry as much about hanging a splitter.

''There were a lot of similarities [with 2004], especially in the first five or six innings."

What does this mean for the Red Sox the rest of the way?

''We can't all of a sudden say we're now going to be a pitching-and-defense team," said Epstein, ''but when we get starting pitching like we've been getting, it changes the nature of our club."

''This gives us a guy we rely on for a lot," said Francona. ''We signed him because he's one of the best pitchers in baseball and now we've got a chance to be closer to having that guy back."

Schill is back. And all is right with the Nation. Book him for Game 2 of the Division Series at Fenway against the Angels, A's, or Indians.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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