Schilling pleased with ’06 opener

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ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) – Early in his career, when Curt Schilling was more an unharnessed thrower than a refined pitcher, he needed several innings to settle down to the point where he could work the strike zone.

Now 39 and coming off two injury-marred seasons, Schilling is amazed that the opposite seems to be happening – he starts games in total control, then gets stronger and wilder once he gets loosened up.

The trend began in spring training and continued Monday when Schilling threw seven strong innings to lead Boston to a 7-3 victory over the Texas Rangers.

“This is what I was like in 2002,” said Schilling, who won a career-best 23 games and was the runner-up in NL Cy Young Award voting that season.

Schilling came out dazzling, striking out the first two batters swinging and retiring the first eight. Then, when he came out for the fourth inning, his fastball had a little more oomph and he struggled to put it where he wanted.

“I don’t have an explanation for it,” Schilling said. “I just know the first three innings, I was pitching. We had a game plan and I was moving the ball, making my pitches. Then all of a sudden, I could feel it. When I threw a couple pitches in the fourth inning, I knew I had something extra on them.”

Schilling pitched around singles in the fourth and fifth innings. In the sixth, another single was followed by a home run.

Although he was coming off a rough inning, the bullpen was obviously fresh and the Red Sox were up 6-1, manager Terry Francona still decided to send out Schilling for the seventh. His faith was rewarded with a 1-2-3 inning, including another strikeout.

“I thought he could get them out,” Francona said. “He had a lot left. He was fine.”

Schilling allowed two runs, five hits, struck out five and walked one in a whopping 117 pitches. Very few of them were his split-fingered fastball, either.

“He worked both sides of the plate and spotted his fastball well,” said reigning AL batting champ Michael Young, who went 0-for-4, the first three outs against Schilling. “We had some aggressive cuts against him, but he did a good job and kept us off balance. He is always tough and is very competitive.”

Schilling’s pitch count was beefed up by his mid-inning struggles. It bothered him because it cost him a chance for a complete game.

Schilling was the one who noted the strange turnaround in his pitching dilemma, how now his “command feels exceptional, then the velocity shows up,” a flip-flop from his younger days.

He also smiled when he said it.

“A little better combo, I think,” he said. “Sometimes velocity is a double-edged sword. The more I do it, the better I’ll get at it. If I can take that command and focus into the fifth, sixth, seventh inning, my pitch count will go down.”

Francona also sees it as a good problem to have.

“It’s nice that he has that left in the tank because that’s the guy I remember,” Francona said. “He could reach back and get more when he needed it.”

The Red Sox are counting on more of these kind of performances. So is Schilling, who feels he needs to live up to his status as the opening-day starter.

“I take a lot of pride in where I sit in the rotation,” he said. “After opening day is over, it’s over. But there’s something to it for me and I want to be at the top of this rotation. I want to help lead this rotation and that comes with performance.”

Jason Varitek got the Red Sox going with a two-run double off new Texas ace Kevin Millwood in the fourth inning. Boston broke the game open in the fifth, getting an RBI double from newcomer Mark Loretta and a sky-high two-run homer from David Ortiz, who went 3-for-5.

Millwood, pursued by Boston before signing a $60 million, five-year deal with the Rangers, gave up five runs and seven hits in five innings. It was quite a disappointment for the largest crowd in stadium history and the team’s first season opener at home since 2000.

“I had all my pitches working and felt like I had good velocity,” Millwood said. “I just didn’t put all my pitches where I wanted to.”

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