One out away, and as Oakland's Shannon Stewart settled into the batter's box, Jason Varitek flashed his fingers from his catcher's crouch. His signal was for a slider.
On the mound, Curt Schilling shook his head, something he'd done only five, 10 times tops, on this cloudless afternoon in which the sky was turquoise. He wanted to throw a fastball.
In the visitors' dugout, pitcher Josh Beckett's heart was pumping so fast, it was as if he, and not Schilling, was knocking on the door of fame, as broadcaster Ken Coleman once said of a kid pitcher from Toronto, Billy Rohr, at a similar moment 40 years earlier. David Ortiz was so nervous, having only lately noticed the zero under the "H" column for the home team, that teammates had to put fingers to their lips. Shhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Two more pitches, and it was over, Cora gathering Ellis's pop fly on the foul side of the right-field line to end it.
After the 425th start of Schilling's 19-year big-league career, there would be another entry for a one-hitter, the third of his career. He has never come closer to a no-no. In his 1992 one-hitter, against the Mets when he was pitching for the Phillies, Bobby Bonilla led off the fifth with a home run.
In the one-hitter he threw for the Diamondbacks against the Brewers in 2002, Raul Casanova's single came with one out in the third.
In Red Sox history, only two pitchers -- Rohr, who gave up a single to Elston Howard in Yankee Stadium in 1967, and Rick Wise, who in 1975 gave up a walk and a two-run home run to George Scott with two outs in the ninth in Milwaukee -- had experienced what Schilling did yesterday.
"Have I been this close to being part of one?" Cora said. "Not 10 feet."
But whatever disappointment Schilling felt, he was not going to betray his feelings, not as long as he was still on the mound. "It's 1-0," he said afterward. "As soon as [Stewart's] ball leaves the infield, that's done with. I've got to get this next guy out, and not allow something to slip away that shouldn't."
For the Red Sox, the stakes went beyond a no-hitter. They'd lost their last four games, their longest losing streak of the season, and six of seven. A loss yesterday and they were looking at being swept by Oakland and headed for Arizona to face another hot team, the Diamondbacks.
"We needed to win today, above everything else," Schilling said, "so it was very easy to stay focused on what we were trying to accomplish, which was to win the game. The fact that they had no hits going into the seventh, eighth, ninth reflected executing the game plan, but the focus was winning the game. We hadn't won the last couple of a days. This was a big win for us.
"I've never taken a no-hitter into the ninth inning before, but I've been in 1-0 games. You don't want to give the game away, getting caught up in something that had nothing to do with the outcome. I just stayed focused on pitch to pitch."
There was nothing in Schilling's warm-up before the game that telegraphed what was coming, Varitek said. "That's why you can't overevaluate a bullpen," Varitek said. "He was really fighting through his stuff, to be totally honest.
"I had one other guy, in the Cape Cod League, Jeff Alkire, whose bullpen was horrendous. Curt wasn't horrendous. But Alkire had nothing -- no feel, nothing -- and he goes out and throws a no-hitter."
Schilling wasn't sharp with his offspeed pitches early. "But the command of his fastball was there, right from the beginning," Varitek said. "That was the key."
This was not the Schilling who struck out 17 in his one-hitter against the Brewers. That Schilling relied on pure power. Yesterday was a swirling blend of cutters and changeups, sliders and splitters, pitches with which Schilling began to hit his spots with greater frequency, while the speed of his fastball also increased. The first 14 Athletics went down before Lugo's error. "It was an easy play," Lugo said, "but it took a little hop on me."
A dozen more Athletics would return to the dugout before Stewart's single. Schilling walked no one. Twelve Athletics went out on fly balls. Eleven were retired on grounders. Schilling struck out four.
"I felt good later in the game," he said. "I thought, velocity-wise, I got better as the game went on. Stuff-wise, I got sharper. I made some mistakes earlier. They hit some balls right at people, but defensively we made some great plays. It was a fun game to be part of."
And a better game, he said, to win.
"I think Eric Hinske said it best," Lowell said, "when he said, 'I've never seen our pitcher throw a shutout and we win, 1-0, and we're all disappointed.' But the game was a big one for us to win, and he gave it to us."
The ball was in Schilling's hands, and so was the decision. "I was sure he was taking," Schilling said. "Tek was sure he was swinging. I was wrong."
He threw a fastball, the fastest his 40-year-old arm had summoned all afternoon, registering 95 miles per hour on the electric scoreboard in McAfee Coliseum. Stewart swung, and the moment dissolved in regret. A line drive, sharply struck by the righthanded-hitting Stewart, kicked up dirt after streaking past second baseman Alex Cora, who never had a chance, and continued into right field.
"I had a plan," Schilling said. "I shook 'Tek off. And I've got the big 'what if' for the rest of my life."
The no-hitter was gone. The bid for a perfect game ended with two outs in the fifth, when shortstop Julio Lugo, who handled the first two chances in the ninth, ground balls by Mark Kotsay and Jason Kendall, muffed a routine roller by first baseman Dan Johnson that hopped up on him at the last moment. Until Stewart's single, that error had accounted for Oakland's only base runner. Center fielder Coco Crisp sprinted to the wall to reach overhead and gather Kotsay's bid for extra bases to open the sixth ("That's when I said to myself, 'OK, this might really happen,' " Schilling said), and third baseman Mike Lowell smothered a tricky hopper by Mark Ellis down the third base line to start the seventh.
But the score was still 1-0, Ortiz's first-inning home run off Joe Blanton accounting for the only run, and now the tying run was on base. There was a game to be won. Varitek took a couple steps toward the mound, then caught a glimpse of Schilling's face.
"Curt had tremendous energy after that hit," Varitek said. "It's like he said, 'Hey, I'm going, I'm getting on this mound, let's go.' I started to take a timeout, but his demeanor pushed me right back to the plate."