BOSTON – With their closer headed for the disabled list and their ace at partial strength, the Boston Red Sox are sending Curt Schilling to the bullpen to plug a gap there and help him work his way back from an ankle injury.

“It’s definitely the best thing for him,” Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said Wednesday, “and it just so happens to be exactly what the team needs right now.”

Schilling has been on a minor-league rehab assignment while trying to recover from a right ankle injury that put him on the disabled list after just three starts. In what was expected to be his last rehab appearance, he struggled to get through five innings with Triple-A Pawtucket on Monday.

Epstein said the team concluded that Schilling was “a long way” from being the ace who went 21-6 with a 3.26 ERA in the regular season before using an unprecedented medical technique to help pitch the Red Sox to their first World Series title since 1918.

“We don’t need a five-inning starter right now. We need Curt Schilling to be himself,” Epstein said. “We all feel he’s not ready to be a dominant starter right now.”

Meanwhile Epstein said Foulke, who has struggled this season, will have surgery Thursday in Boston. The pitcher had both of his knees examined by doctors Wednesday after returning home.

Manager Terry Francona, who was not available when the move was announced before Boston’s series finale at Texas, said earlier this week that Foulke’s left knee has been bothering him “for years. For a while.”

Foulke, who closed out all four games of Boston’s World Series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals last October, has a 5-5 record with a 6.23 ERA and 15 saves in 37 appearances.

In Foulke’s last game, Texas scored twice in the ninth inning for a 6-5 victory Monday night. It was his second blown save in a week, and fourth of the season. He gave up a ninth-inning grand slam against Cleveland in Fenway Park last week.

With Foulke on the disabled list, Schilling will combine with Alan Embree and Mike Timlin to make up for the closer’s absence without the need for a trade.

“This helps us avoid doing something desperate and shortsighted,” Epstein said, calling the move “short-term.”

Schilling will pitch one inning in relief for Pawtucket on Thursday night. Epstein said more minor-league appearances would follow to help the 38-year-old righthander make the switch.

“He’s on the phone right now with guys who’ve made the transition before,” Epstein said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. “It’s remarkable for a guy who’s been a starter for so long to put his interests behind the overall interests of the club. A lot of guys wouldn’t be willing to do that.”

Epstein said going to the bullpen won’t delay Schilling’s eventual return to the rotation. In Texas with his teammates on Tuesday, Schilling said there were still “physical issues … just some inconsistency there, velocity-wise.”

Schilling injured a tendon in his ankle near the end of the 2004 regular season and struggled in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series against New York. After testing an unprecedented procedure on a cadaver, the team doctor made a wall of stitches in Schilling’s ankle to keep the tendon in place.

With blood seeping through his sock, Schilling beat the Yankees in Game 6, catapulting the Red Sox to an improbable comeback. The procedure was repeated before Game 2 of the World Series.

Schilling had surgery during the offseason and started the season on the disabled list. He went 1-2 with an 8.15 ERA before bruising his right ankle on April 23 and going back on the DL.

The Red Sox purchased the contract of right-hander Scott Cassidy from Triple-A Pawtucket. Cassidy was 6-3 with a 3.81 ERA in 25 minor league appearances.

The Red Sox signed Foulke in the wake of their meltdown in Yankee Stadium in the 2003 playoffs, giving him a contract that could pay him $26.5 million over four seasons. He earned it last year, when he was 5-3 with 32 saves and a 2.17 ERA and the Red Sox won their first World Series title since 1918.

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