Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Youk's Inside Park Homer & Shilling's 10 Strike Outs Spark Sox Victory

BOSTON -- If not for the Red Sox getting off to the second best start in club history after 50 games, Curt Schilling's recent slump would have been a far more prominent topic of conversation. Instead, Schilling was quietly able to tinker with his troubles over the last few days, and for one night, at least, he appeared to have it all figured out.
The big right-hander mowed right through a talented Indians' lineup and lifted the rolling Red Sox to a 5-3 victory Monday night at Fenway Park.

Jonathan Papelbon earned the save, navigating his way through an adventurous ninth inning. But Schilling gave another assist to pitching coach John Farrell.

"He's going to deny it until he's blue in the face, but this game was a direct result of John Farrell and the hard work and time and effort he's put in with not just me, but with the staff," said Schilling.

The 35-15 start by the Sox matches the 1986 American League pennant-winning edition for second best in the club's rich history. Only the 1946 Sox (41-9) of Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky bolted out to a better start. The Red Sox maintained their 11 1/2 game lead over the Orioles in the American League East. The Blue Jays are 12 games back and the Yankees, almost inconceivably, are now 13 1/2 games behind Boston.

Perhaps only a vintage performance from Schilling (seven innings, six hits, one run, no walks, 10 strikeouts) could trump the return of fan favorite Trot Nixon, who came back to Fenway for the first time since signing with the Indians.

But Schilling's revival and Nixon's 1-for-3 reunion had to make way for yet another storyline -- the red-hot bat of Kevin Youkilis. Not only did the first baseman extend his career-high hitting streak to 20 games, but he clubbed an inside-the-park homer in the bottom of the seventh inning.

The 410-foot liner clanged off the portion of the Boston bullpen that intersects with the triangle area in right-center and rolled for what seemed like miles. Youkilis roared around the bases and came home standing up. It was Boston's first inside-the-park homer since Nixon did the honors against the Yankees in July 2005.

"That was tough," said Youkilis. "That was like working out in the offseason. That's what you condition for -- sprints and long sprints. I saw the ball hit the wall and then I just took off."

The Sox held a 5-2 lead entering the ninth and usually that's a lock with Papelbon on the mound. But the hard-throwing closer got into immediate trouble, opening the inning with a walk to David Dellucci, a single to Ryan Garko and an RBI double off the bat of Josh Barfield.

But Papelbon then got a critical popup to third off the bat of dangerous leadoff man Grady Sizemore. And then came the controversy. Papelbon fired a 1-2 pitch to Casey Blake that appeared to either hit the batter or tip off his bat. Initially, Blake was issued first base. However, after the umpired conferred, it was ruled a strikeout. Even though Blake was hit by the pitch, he also swung.

"I don't know," said Papelbon. "It's tough, I only saw one replay of it. That's a tough call. Personally, I thought it hit the bat. But everyone was telling me it hit him on the hand. I guess by the rule he's out. I didn't necessarily see that, to be totally honest. That's the call they made and the call we went with and I had to clear that out of my mind and get the next guy. I'll take any out I can at that point."

Papelbon got no favors with the game hanging in the balance against dangerous slugger Travis Hafner. Nor did he need any. Papelbon went at Hafner with pure heat and ended the game by blowing a 97-mph fastball by him.

"I was off-line a little bit tonight," Papelbon said. "I wasn't as sharp as I would have liked to have been. I was sideways with my delivery a little bit and I wasn't throwing through [Jason] Varitek as well as I normally do. I just had to make the adjustment within the inning. It's baseball. We play 162 of these games. You aren't going to be perfect every time. I just had to make the adjustment."

In the grand scheme of things for the Red Sox, the most significant adjustment of the eventful night was made by Schilling. Mysteriously over his previous three starts, Schilling lost the power in his fastball and the bite in his splitter. Both returned in dramatic fashion, with Schilling recording double-digit strikeouts in a game for the first time this season.

"No walks, 10 strikeouts, he located his fastball with some finish on it and really threw, in my opinion, his best split of the year," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona.

While improving to 5-2 and lowering his ERA to 3.66, Schilling racked up career victory No. 212. In this one, Schilling looked nothing like the man who had gone 0-1 in his last three starts while giving up 29 hits and 11 earned runs over 17 1/3 innings.

He set the tone moments after the completion of the national anthem, striking out the side in the first.

"I was throwing," said Schilling. "I was getting after it a little bit. Some of the adjustments that we made have to do with that, physically and mentally with my fastball, in addition to my command and all the other stuff."

Individual ups and downs aside, things are good for the Red Sox right now. Make no mistake about that.

"We are a solid team," said Schilling. "We pitch from front to back. Offensively, it is never one or two or three guys. It is a combination of different people every night."

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