EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 3, 2006

Experience on his side, Schilling prepared for playoff push

On Baseball

BOSTON - Curt Schilling peeled off his sweat-soaked T-shirt, sat down and took a firm, hard look at the immediate future.

"Dog days start today," the Red Sox ace pitcher said Monday.

That day, however, was a little different. Age, experience, and living the life of a Red Sox will do that.

"It really hasn't been anything how I've expected it to be, from how my foot feels to my arm, to my body," said Schilling of what has been a 23-start, 152 1/3-inning season. "It's been different, good and bad.

"I've had a lot more days that it's tough getting up, getting around, and getting the foot going, which I didn't expect to have. But it's never bothered me once I started to get ready for a game. But I still don't feel like I've been consistently good yet. Physically I feel great. That was the question for everybody. But the hard thing for me is that mental part that just didn't come back automatically for me. I expected to get back on the mound, be ready, and mentally start clicking and I never did. I'm still searching."

Schilling's season to date has to be classified as a success by even the most ardent of his detractors. At the age of 39 years old, the pitcher has bounced back from a season-long battle with injuries to defy the doubters.

He currently maintains a 13-4 mark with a 3.84 ERA and, most importantly, isn't far off from reaching his ultimate preseason goal, pitching 240 innings. On his current pace, Schilling would total just more than 231 frames, the most since he joined the Sox in '04 and his highest output since compiling 259 1/3 innings in '02.

"Even when I said I didn't question what I could do, people questioned what I was saying," Schilling said. "I was one guy who everybody looked as a question mark. They said, 'Is he going to be able to pitch, and if he does he probably isn't going to be what he used to be.' We still have eight weeks left so I certainly am not going to say, 'Ha, ha, I told you so.' But the fact of the matter is that I've taken the ball every day they have given it to me, and we've done pretty well when I pitched. I'm proud of that."

But not comes the hard part.

For Schilling, Aug. 1 marked an anniversary of when he received a wake-up call that still resonates today. That was the day, back in '04, that former Sox physical therapist Chris Correnti took it upon himself to ask the pitcher about his commitment regarding the season's final two months.

Schilling knew the answer, and subsequently rededicated himself to getting ready for the stretch drive. The result was a 3.14 ERA in August, a 2.61 ERA in September, and, eventually, a world championship. It is a memory that kicked right back in when Monday rolled around. And, of course, it doesn't hurt that health doesn't appear to be a midsummer issue for the first time since '02.

"(Monday) I had a really long side session, got some work in, and felt good about what I did. That, to me, is as much as part of the process as actually pitching in the game," he said. "But when you're pitching on Sunday and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday you're in the trainer's room just trying to get your body ready for Friday, you regress from a command and sharpness standpoint. Right now I feel strong."

It's not a perfect world for Schilling these days. He is coming off three outings in which he has surrendered 26 hits in 18 innings, and, despite the proclamation of strength, the pitcher admits to be facing a whole new batch of challenges.

Some of the obstacles have been overcome thanks to the diligence of a newly-revamped regimen, which includes standing in a bucket of ice for 15 seconds on the day of every start to jumpstart his neurological system. ("The East German soccer team had done it forever," he said.)

But, as Schilling realizes, the season's most treacherous terrain is upon him.

"The last two weeks I haven't felt great," Schilling said. "From a flexibility standpoint my shoulder hasn't felt as good as it can feel. But that's part of being 39-years-old and pitching 3,000 innings. It happens ... I'm 39 for the first time. I'm going through all the things I've gone through for the first time and there's going to be discomfort and pain along the way.

"This is the time of year where the guys who are flukes go away and the guys who aren't pick it up. These days end up being the most important part of the season to get to October, and you have to pitch better than you have pitched the entire season. You have to get innings under your belt with some aches and pains, you have to be able to swallow it, and not only pitch, but pitch well. Taking the ball is not the challenge at this point in the season, it's doing it and competing at a higher level."