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'Walkoff win' for Schilling

A disappointing season ends on high note for him

His cap was off as he crossed the first base line, waving it to a crowd that first seemed slightly confused, but responded with the standing ovation his manager had anticipated. Curt Schilling was done for the night -- and, as Terry Francona later confirmed, for the season -- so Francona allowed him one last walk to the mound, though with 101 pitches already thrown, he had no intention of leaving Schilling out there for the eighth inning.

So, after seven innings (plus no batters), Schilling headed back to the dugout with his job completed, his game back on target after an unimpressive stretch that included a winless streak of six weeks, and an injury to the latissimus dorsi muscle on his right side.

Backed by David Ortiz's 54th home run -- and nine strikeouts of his own, one shy of his season high, including three of rookie bat-thrower Delmon Young -- Schilling (15-7) proved his worth in front of an announced crowd of 36,134, both in controlling the Devil Rays in a 5-1 win and lowering his ERA to 3.97, after it had crept up above 4.00.

Back on Aug. 4, the day Schilling collected his 14th win of the season, it was not out of the question that the rock of the Red Sox staff could make it to 20 wins for the fourth time in his career and second time in Boston. He wasn't exactly pitching his best but he had done enough to take wins in four of his last five starts. And, for the Sox to make the postseason, he would have to keep it up.

Seems like so long ago.

``It's disappointing on a lot of levels to have it go the way it went, after such a promising start," Schilling said. ``Just got to take it for what it is and learn from it. Eight weeks ago, we were in position to do something, and I'm looking at a 23-, 24-, 25-win season and all that comes with that. Last start of the year and I'm trying to get my 15th win. A lot of disappointment there, but can't change it now.

``I should have won a lot more. I should have pitched better."

No postseason beckons, leaving Schilling with only the golf in October that he decried not that long ago. No chance at 20 wins, not with a streak that included an 0-3 record in six starts after Aug. 4 and the injury that kept him out from Aug. 30-Sept. 20. Nothing but pride, a shot at win No. 207 of his career, and the chance to go back in front of the Blue Jays for the all-important second slot in the division.

And, somehow, an opportunity for a cryptic comment on his way out.

Asked how, with his physical questions answered during 2006, he will cope with his mental struggles, Schilling ended his press conference with a note of uncertainty on his status for 2007.

``If I come back next year, I know that the offseason will be the hardest offseason of my career because I'll have to work harder than I've ever worked," Schilling said. ``I don't want to come back and pitch. I want to come back and be the best.

``At this time in my life, that involves a lot more time and effort away from the ballpark. That's a huge question for me. That's a huge issue to delve into and to deal with. We'll see how it goes and take it that way."

With $13 million owed to Schilling by the Red Sox -- an option that vested when the team won the World Series -- it would be supremely unlikely that the pitcher does not come back. Another 20 wins would get him that much closer to the Hall of Fame and, with his 40th birthday coming in November, Schilling has repeatedly said that he wants one more year in the big leagues.

But, at least last night, the only focus was on his final start of the season, one that provided a balm to the pains of the season.

``I think it's a constant battle because he strives for so much perfection, you know he's always trying to get better, but from where he was and what he had to, the obstacles he had, I thought he did great," said Francona. ``You know whatever he does, whether it's good bad or in between, you get everything he has. That's all you can ask."

Both Schilling's splitter (which catcher Jason Varitek said he didn't master until the second or third inning) and fastball were working on a perfect fall evening in the Fens.

And though Schilling walked more batters than he had in any start this season (four), he got into trouble only in the first inning, when he gave up the run. Carl Crawford walked and scored on a double by Greg Norton. Ty Wigginton followed with a walk. But, with one of those nine strikeouts -- this one swinging on a splitter -- Schilling erased Kevin Witt and Tampa Bay's best chance for more offense.

Meanwhile, turning violently on a ball on the inside part of the plate, Ortiz crushed No. 54 in the third inning to tie the game, moving him up to ninth on the list of home run totals for a season in the American League. The Sox followed with four runs in the fourth inning, on a Varitek double, an Eric Hinske double, an Alex Cora triple, walks to Kevin Youkilis and Mark Loretta, and a single by Ortiz.

That was enough, and so they handed over the adulation to their ace, who acknowledged the difficulties of his season.

``I expected to come out of the gate trying to figure it out physically and mentally, I figured I'd be where I needed to be from Day One," Schilling said. ``And mentally I just never felt like I was consistently where I needed to be. A lot of things go into going out there every fifth day for me. Mental preparation is at the top of the list and I just never felt consistently confident.

``The one thing I always assumed was that mentally I was so good that I wouldn't need to work as hard on that aspect of my game to get back to where I was before the surgery. And nothing could have been farther from the truth."

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