FORT MILL, S.C. (AP) – Curt Schilling pitched five strong innings for Triple-A Pawtucket on Wednesday night in his first start since injuring his right ankle in April.

“I feel good, good,” Schilling said. “This was a very positive step.”

Schilling threw 78 pitches – 54 of them strikes – and allowed a run on five hits. He struck out three, walked one and left to a standing ovation from the many Boston fans who turned out to see the World Series champion’s ace.

Schilling waved his glove hand to the crowd after the fifth inning, shook hands with Pawtucket manager Ron Johnson and flipped his cap into the stands before disappearing down the dugout steps.

“I spent the first two or three innings – I tried to answer a lot of questions, a lot of my own questions,” Schilling said. “I thought the fourth and fifth innings I started to pitch. A lot of things to work on, but I thought there was a lot of progression, probably as much mentally as well as physically tonight.”

Schilling hadn’t pitched since bruising an ankle bone against Tampa Bay on April 23. Last Friday, he threw 84 pitches in a simulated five-inning game before the Red Sox played at Philadelphia to set himself up for the minor league start.

If there are no recovery problems the next few days, Schilling will face the Knights again Monday at Pawtucket. And another stellar performance could mean Schilling’s return to Boston before the All-Star break – just like he projected earlier this month.

“I feel better than I did yesterday about how I feel,” Schilling said, smiling.

Schilling last pitched at Knights Stadium in 1988 as a Baltimore farmhand with the then-Double-A Knights.

This time, though, many in the crowd came out to honor the pitcher that helped lead the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years.

Fans, several dressing in Schilling’s Boston jersey, lined the railing by the visitors’ dugout waiting for a glimpse or a wave. One family held up a sign that said simply, “Welcome Back, Curt. Thank You.”

When Schilling finally jogged to the mound in the bottom of the first, those fans stood and cheered.

“They were unbelievable,” Schilling said. “That’s Red Sox Nation, that’s part of one of the secrets that as a Red Sox player is all you know about. … They were vocal and it was very much appreciated.”

Schilling gave them plenty to cheer about.

After Jamie Burke doubled with one out, Schilling got out of trouble with a flyball to center and a grounder to third.

In the second, Schilling faced runners on the corners with one out. But he forced Felix Martinez into a sharp grounder to second for an inning-ending double play.

The Knights finally got to Schilling in the third on a single by Burke, a walk by Roosevelt Brown and a RBI hit to center by Jorge Toca.

But that was all they could manage against the six-time All-Star.

Schilling rang up his first strikeout in the fourth against Knights center fielder Joe Borchard on a 92 mph fastball.

He was ahead 3-1 when he came out after the fifth inning.

Schilling also appeared to have little trouble moving on his repaired ankle – it’s hard to forget the bloody sock Schilling sported in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series at New York last fall and in Game 2 of the World Series against St. Louis. Schilling had surgery in November to repair a detached tendon in his right ankle.

But on a grounder hit behind first in the second inning against Charlotte, Schilling sped to cover first without problems.

Schilling wants to be hopeful, but knows not to get ahead of himself.

“I’m leery. We’ve done this before,” Schilling said. “You know, it’s been seven months since I pitched a good game. And I think no matter how mentally strong you think you are, there are times when it’s tough to put a positive spin on things. It’s been very tough for me since Game 4 of the World Series.”

The way Schilling looked, his tough times may be coming to an end.

AP-ES-06-29-05 2159EDT

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