BOSTON (AP) – For the first time since 1995, the Boston Red Sox are in first place at the All-Star break. And they reached that spot with one of the worst pitching staffs in the American League.

Curt Schilling could change that mound mediocrity in a hurry.

The ace whose dramatic postseason outings despite a serious ankle problem helped the Red Sox win last year’s World Series could be their closer when they resume play on Thursday night, starting a four-game series against the New York Yankees.

“I feel good and ready to go,” Schilling said after pitching one scoreless inning for the second consecutive game Sunday with Triple-A Pawtucket. “If they’re ready for me to get back, I’m ready to get back there.”

The Red Sox haven’t announced if he’ll be activated by Thursday but “from everything we hear (his last outing) was pretty good,” pitching coach Dave Wallace said Monday. “We’ll have to have a discussion, see what’s going on, see how he feels and see how it all fits.”

Schilling’s transformation from one of baseball’s best starters into a reliever was a convenient solution to two problems – two rehabilitation starts told team officials he wasn’t ready to be a starter, and Keith Foulke’s troubles as a closer created a need for bullpen help.

“It’s clear that pitching has been a priority,” general manager Theo Epstein said. “We’re really happy with our offense.”

The Red Sox have the third worst ERA in the AL – better than only Kansas City and Tampa Bay – but the best batting average. The only productive relievers have been Mike Timlin and Mike Myers. Timlin and Schilling are expected to share the closer’s job until Schilling is ready to start again.

“We’re struggling to have an extra righty in that bullpen,” catcher Jason Varitek said.

The Red Sox lead the Orioles by 2 games and the New York Yankees by 2 in the AL East with a 49-38 record after losing three of their last four games in Baltimore. They were an almost identical 48-38 at the All-Star break last season but trailed the Yankees by 7 games.

“We turned it around last year and we can do the same this year,” Johnny Damon said. “We’re actually in good spirits in the clubhouse. We’re not panicking one bit. The bullpen hasn’t been great, but we know they’re going to turn it around.”

It couldn’t get much worse. Just check the relievers’ ERAs: John Halama’s 6.05, Foulke’s 6.23, Matt Mantei’s 6.49, Alan Embree’s 7.82. Foulke isn’t expected back before mid-August following arthroscopic knee surgery and Mantei, also on the disabled list, could miss the rest of the season with a left ankle ligament sprain.

The Red Sox also lost starters Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe to free agency, and Schilling’s ERA was 8.15 in three starts before an ankle injury sent him to the disabled list April 29.

There were some recent clubhouse issues – Damon’s comment that Schilling wasn’t right for the closer’s role, Matt Clement’s omission from the All-Star team before an injury to Toronto’s Roy Halladay gave him a spot and outfielder Jay Payton’s open dissatisfaction with his backup role that led to the Red Sox designating him for assignment.

Through it all, manager Terry Francona has stayed calm, a job made easier because his offense is so potent that four players were elected as starting all-stars – Damon, Varitek, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.

“We’ve done fine. We’re still in first place, right?” said Ortiz, the biggest vote getter in either league. “I think we came out pretty good over the first half of the season, having Schilling and some of the guys out. Now we have to play better.”

Damon has a 25-game hitting streak, and his .343 batting average is the third highest in baseball. Ramirez leads the majors with 80 RBIs and Ortiz is third with 75. Clement is 10-2, one more win than he had all last season with the Chicago Cubs.

“We’re right where we want to be,” first baseman Kevin Millar said. “The team is healthy. We’re getting Schilling back.”

But the division race is very tight. Even fourth-place Toronto is just 51/2 games out of first.

“We know it’s going to be a tough race,” right fielder Trot Nixon said. “We’re happy to be in first, but we aren’t surprised.”

Boston will have the benefit of playing 43 of its remaining 75 games at home. But the Yankees rallied from their season-long struggles and won seven of their last 10 games. On Thursday, the teams will meet for the first time since May 29 when the Red Sox were in second place, three games behind the Orioles..

“We feel that we haven’t played our best baseball yet,” Epstein said. “I think we feel fortunate to be where we are in the standings.”


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