They could have stopped the Boston Red Sox season opener after eight innings and started printing up World Series tickets. But then Keith Foulke, aka “The Tin Man,” had to come in and throw his 86 mph meatballs and at least somewhat subdue New England’s pennant fever.

Up until then, the Red Sox were making many of the preseason prognosticators who are picking them to finish behind the Yankees and the Blue Jays look foolish.

Curt Schilling looked like the workhorse ace of 2004. His fastball was the liveliest its been since he stained his right sock, consistently clocking in the mid-90s with good movement and his trademark pinpoint location. His splitter was diving into the dirt early and often. Two very good signs.

But with this team, the more things have stayed the same, the more they’ve changed. Four new Sox made their debut in the starting lineup, and all of them contributed. Coco Crisp’s speed bothered Texas starter Kevin Millwood and allowed him to score easily on doubles by Mark Loretta and David Ortiz. He also eased Foulke’s pain with a terrific catch in the ninth inning. Loretta had the big two-out double. And the left side of the infield, Mike Lowell and Alex Gonzalez, downplayed concerns about their offensive short-comings with three hits and a homer.

Of course, the Sox’ 12-hit attack and propensity for two-out hits should be taken with a grain of salt. They were, after all, facing the Texas Rangers, who are the 1977 Red Sox reincarnated sans the pitching. (Kids, ask your Dad about the 1977 Boston Red Sox pitching staff. You’ll hear Pops use words you’ve never heard him use before).

But if Boston continues to get even close to that kind of production from the 8-9-1 and 2 spots in the order, they’ll threaten to lead the majors in runs for the fourth straight year. Having David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in the middle of the lineup is a once-in-a-lifetime luxury, but if they have to do it all themselves, they’ll only be able to make the Sox offense average. Crisp is the key. If his on-base percentage can match that of Johnny Damon’s the last two years (.366 and .380), he’ll steal 40 or more bases and score 120+ runs with the Dominican duo hitting behind him.

Crisp isn’t the only candidate for a breakout year in Boston. Several “experts” have tabbed Josh Beckett for the American League Cy Young. Anything close to a Cy Young season, combined with a return to form by Schilling, and you can pencil in, heck, you can carve into stone, a 90-win season for the Sox.

A healthy Schilling and Beckett at the top of the rotation will have significant positive ramifications for the rest of the staff. It will take pressure off Matt Clement (I’m telling ya, he’ll win more games than A.J. Burnett), keep David Wells in line, and give them leverage in what is guaranteed to be an insane bidding war for Roger Clemens’ services in the coming weeks.

But no matter how deep the rotation is or how deep it goes into games, there’s still a big question mark warming up in the bullpen. If Foulke is indeed the Tin Man we saw last year, with creaky knees and no heart into what he’s doing, that complicates matters.

It means either Mike Timlin or Jonathan Papelbon becomes the closer. Timlin was decent filling in for Foulke last year, but he struggles with inherited runners. He’s also got a lot of mileage on his right arm, which makes putting Papelbon in the closer’s role a risk because A) he has no big league experience in that role and B) I get a bad feeling that Timlin is going to wear down quickly if he doesn’t have some help in the set-up role. Maybe Julian Tavarez can provide some aid in the seventh and eighth innings, but somehow I don’t think a guy who sucker-punches people and inanimate objects on a regular basis will handle the pressure in Boston so well.

So, the 2006 Boston Red Sox season comes down to four people – Schilling, Beckett, Crisp and Foulke. If that quartet gets the job done, they’ll beat the Yankees, smoke the Blue Jays (please, whatever you do, don’t believe the hype on the Blue Jays) and scare the horsehide out of the rest of the American League.

Randy Whitehouse is a staff writer. He may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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