SportsProf

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Saturday, September 11, 2004

The Stopper

Teams make lots of moves in the off-season to try to improve their rosters. "Hope springs eternal," they say, and this is especially so in baseball, where hope springs up significantly in the spring. Teams sign the big free agent, make the big trade, do anything to get to the playoffs and then, hopefully, victory in the World Series. Every team has a 0-0 record to start the season, and many legitimately believe that if several things fall into place, they have a shot at the post-season.

Much of this, of course, is folly. The key free agent signing happens to be past his prime, doesn't have the same bat speed, shows up not with a ring around the head of his bat but one around his middle. The ace pitcher inexplicably has lost a foot off his fastball, or the hitters have figured out that if they can trust their coaches and take a few more pitches against this one-time ace, the sliders they swing at out of fear fall out of the strike zone as balls. Or the returning veterans just aren't good enough any more, or, worse, they are, but they just have awful years.

Yogi Berra was right on when he said, "You know, you never know."

Except, perhaps, in the case of the most key deal in the off-season. Because, in this case, everyone knew that the main guy in this big trade was the real deal, even if he was coming off a disappointing season (because of an injury and because he didn't watch his weight the way he should have). The trade was the real deal because the guy could still bring it, prepares like no one else in the game, and performs better under the bright lights than any other pitcher in the majors. The player: Curt Schilling.

I thought then as I do now that if the BoSox could stay close to the Yankees and get them into a short series, that the odds would have to favor the Red Sox, for the simple reason that if they could set up their rotation right, they'd have Curt Schilling pitching their most important game. Remember the 1993 World Series? The Phillies needed a win in Game 5, and Schilling, against a very powerful Blue Jay's lineup, threw a 138-pitch gem and beat the Jays 2-0 to force a Game 6. Big game, big performance. And the 2001 World Series? Who outdueled Roger Clemens in Game 7 after having won 2 games for the Diamondbacks up to that point? Curt Schilling.

So cut to yesterday, when the Red Sox needed a win? Who was on the mound? Who beat the Mariners? Who stopped Ichiro's 14-game hitting streak? Who is the first 19-game winner in the American League? Who's frequently in the late-season conversations about the Cy Young Award?

Curt Schilling.

Javier Vazquez, formerly the Expos' ace, got lit up yesterday for a ton of earned runs (7 or 8) in about 2 and a third innings. Mike Mussina does have 200 career wins, but he's not an "It" type of starting pitcher. El Duque can have his moments, but he's well past his prime, a prime that he had probably about 10 years ago pitching for Fidel Castro. And Kevin Brown? Well, when healthy, he is an "It" type of pitcher, except when he lost it, punched the wall, and then lost the "It."

Throw in Pedro Martinez, and the Red Sox have the most devastating one-two punch in the post-season since, well, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. (The ironic part is that Pedro and the Big Unit are locks for the Hall of Fame, while Schilling probably needs to pitch well through his early 40's to get a serious look). And they could be good enough to end the Curse of the Bambino. Martinez is one of the best, but he's had his health problems, and he may not be the same pitcher he was in his peak years. Schilling, though, shows every sign of getting stronger.

In the off-season, Schilling wanted to leave Arizona for the place that put him on the map, Philadelpia. He wanted to return to the Phillies, where he was beloved (at least by the fans), but a trade between the D-Backs and Phillies just didn't work out (the D-Backs wanted too many prime prospects, and the Phillies didn't want to part with two potential #1 starters in Gavin Floyd and Cole Hamels). Schilling would have loved to pitch in the new Citizens Bank Park on opening day, and he would have loved to lead the Phillies back to the post-season. And boy the Phillies could have used him, couldn't they? A Schilling-led pitching staff might have the Phillies atop the NL East or in the thick of the NL wild card chase.

Instead, Schilling gets traded to the Red Sox, and he's the one guy who loves the heat, loves the rivalry, and who has enough of a sense of history to know that there aren't many greater challenges in baseball than leading the Red Sox to their first World Series title since 1918 (the Cubs have a longer drought, but the sense of dread over their post-season possibilities doesn't rival the foreboding gloom that seemingly envelops New England every September). Curt Schilling knows that if he can help the BoSox achieve this goal, he'll be the King of New England in a town that was famous for dissing the King of England and starting the Revolutionary War.

Have a game seven? World Championship on the line? In St. Louis, perhaps, or in Fenway.

Curt Schilling will be ready.

Call him a stopper, a curse breaker, the King of New England, whatever.

Just give him the ball in the big game and let him do the rest.

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