Terry Francona had warned people before the game that the graph would no longer be shooting upward. Curt Schilling had arrived at a stage where he was no longer going to be evaluated by pitch counts, and that getting ''stretched out" was no longer an issue.
''He's just pitching now," the skipper declared. ''What he did in New York [last Saturday] was good for him, and good for us. Hopefully, he will make his pitches. But even at his peak of his career, he would lose games. If the other team can beat him, they'll beat him."
The Oakland A's can. And did.
Schilling was the losing pitcher in last night's 6-2 affair because he just wasn't good enough. He was behind by a 2-0 score after five pitches, which, as a rule, is not a good thing. ''Before you can even get your feet on the ground," pointed out Francona, ''you are pitching out of the stretch and you've got your hands full."
So the lead over those fellows in New York is down to 1 1/2 games, one in the AILC (All-Important Loss Column). It was an all-around bad night for the Red Sox. Schilling needed three innings to find himself, the Sox couldn't do much with rookie righthander Joe Blanton, and everyone in the ballpark had to look out at the left-field scoreboard to see the Yankees go from a 5-1 deficit against the Devil Rays to a 7-5 lead (and eventually a 9-5 triumph) with a six-run sixth. And, oh yeah, the Red Sox noticed, all right.
''We still control our own destiny," said Schilling. ''We knew this thing was gonna play itself out and I looked out there and saw what was happening. But it certainly wasn't going to affect my pitch selection, my approach, or any of that stuff. If you do, you're focusing on the wrong things."
We can take that at face value, just as we can take it at face value when he said that his problem wasn't velocity, or quality of his stuff, but that old Harvard Business School standby. You know, location, location, location.
''Today, it was location," he said. ''I left a lot of balls over the middle of the plate."
''Hitters let you know," agreed Francona. ''I think it's more location than zip on his fastball."
The A's were men with a plan, that's for sure. This is supposed to be a work-the-pitcher bunch, but they came out swinging. Mark Ellis hit the first pitch of the game for a sharp single to center. Jason Kendall fouled off the first pitch he saw and then hit the second one into the left-field corner. Second and third, nobody out. Mark Kotsay took a called strike and then hit a single to center, scoring both base runners. Five pitches!
''I felt like it was going to be a tight game," said Schilling, ''and then I gave up two runs in about two minutes before anybody's even sitting in their seats."
Schilling said he had a suspicion the A's might be uncommonly aggressive. ''I had a feeling coming into the game that if they had watched my last start, which a lot of teams do, they would see how many first-pitch fastballs I was throwing, and how many I left in the middle of the plate that got hit well. They did. The first pitch was about 8 inches off the plate that got hit well. Not a bad pitch. The next few hits were right down the middle."
Schilling did find himself before the night was over. He gave up another run in the second, but then he started figuring things out, and would submit a six-pitch fifth and eight-pitch sixth. The only other run he gave up should never have happened. With two away and none on in the seventh, Kotsay looped a ball to short center that Edgar Renteria ran down nicely and then allowed to hit off his glove. It had to be ruled a hit, but it also had to be caught by a big league shortstop. Eric Chavez then walked on a 3-and-2 pitch (Schilling really, really really wanted the 2-and-2 call from plate umpire Alfonso Marquez). That brought up Jay Payton, the man who had poison-pilled himself out of Boston earlier in the season. You could just sense that the way this frustrating evening was going you could book him for a base hit, and thus it was no great shock when he banged one off the Wall to bring home the fourth run.
This is a pennant race, folks, and the bottom line is the bottom line. Curt Schilling did not get the job done. He gave up 11 hits and four earned runs in 6 2/3 innings, his winning streak stopped at one. He's got to wait four long days for another chance to help the team in these rather important times.
But this game was not just about Curt Schilling not getting the job done. It was also about a rookie named Joe Blanton coming up pretty big when his team really needed a boost. (And, yes, he was locating very well.) For the A's had not come here on a roll. They had come here having lost nine of their previous 14 games. They were missing their starting shortstop, Bobby Crosby (with whom they were 55-24), who is on the disabled list for the second time this season, this time with a fractured ankle. They are tied with the Orange County team for supremacy in the American League West. They have their own agenda, in other words, and the Red Sox are in their way. And Blanton gave them what they needed.
It was a troubling night for the Sox. Johnny Damon returned to the lineup and managed to get credit for a double and score one of the Sox' runs, but he clearly demonstrated that his ailing left shoulder is next to useless when it comes to throwing a baseball. Jason Varitek looked sadly pathetic at the plate. The Captain is 6-for-September, and is so out of sorts at the dish that he tried to bunt his way on with two on and two out in the sixth. It was evident from that moment that he would strike out to end the inning. And so he did.
It was a night when even Big Papi couldn't save them.
Tonight, it's Tim Wakefield's turn to give the Red Sox what they need, to do what Blanton was able to do for the A's and what Schilling couldn't do for the Sox. There are 16 games left. This, they all say, is what they play for. So play, guys, play, and may the best locator win.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.