Any movement forward on the Schilling front took a hit on Friday when regular closer Keith Foulke was hit with a line drive just above his right elbow off the bat of Trot Nixon. Foulke, who is recovering from arthroscopic surgery on July 7 to fix damaged cartilage in his left knee, had just made his third pitch of his first simulated game.
Foulke will not throw again until at least Tuesday when the Red Sox are in Kansas City, manager Terry Francona said after the incident, the second in as many days that one of his key pitchers was struck with a batted ball. Starter Tim Wakefield took a liner off the right shin during a 13-4 loss to the Angels on Thursday night and is day-to-day with a deep bone contusion.
Sitting in front of his locker on Friday, Wakefield had a red welt and impression in his lower shin the shape of a baseball.
Much was made of Schilling's heroics last postseason when he started key games in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees and the World Series against St. Louis with a suture tying a tendon to the bone in his right ankle. Schilling bled blood, sweat and tears through his baseball hose, which was sent to Cooperstown.
But Foulke was the unsung hero of Boston's magnificent eight-game winning streak that began with the Red Sox down 3-zip to the Yankees and didn't stop until the right-hander closed Game 4 of the World Series.
During the singular run, Foulke pitched in seven of the eight games and finished five of them. During the World Series, he closed all four games, winning Game 1 and saving Game 4, while allowing one run on seven hits in five innings.
Foulke gave the Red Sox what they didn't have in recent years -- a guy able to take the ball and perform well when the chips were down in the most crucial games of the season. For that reason, the Red Sox won their first championship in 86 years and Foulke deserved to be the MVP of the World Series.
His loss for the last two months has been devastating to the Boston bullpen and Schilling volunteered to step into the breach, even though the effects of offseason ankle surgery haven't nearly dissipated.
"The ankle won't be right for at least another eight to 10 months," Schilling said on Friday.
Still, he has toiled in an unaccustomed role since coming back on July 14, pitching 30 games, accumulating a 4-3 record and nine saves. But in August his ERA for the month had soared to 8.31 before he pitched the two scoreless innings Friday night, striking out four on 27 pitches.
"I'm trying to make the best of it," Schilling said.
Does he like the role?
"Parts of it," he said. "But, of course, I like starting better and I'm hoping to eventually get back to it -- sooner rather than later."
Francona and general manager Theo Epstein declined to speculate on when that might happen, although Francona conceded that Schilling's fate is obviously tied to Foulke's progress.
And Foulke, who had an ice wrap on his right arm as he spoke to reporters before the game on Friday, said a Sept. 1 return is not outlandish.
"If I'm not back by Sept. 1 there's something worse going on than my knee," he said.
That begs the question whether there's still time to stretch Schilling out far enough to get him back in the rotation. All told, since his return in July, Schilling has thrown 362 pitches, about 18 per for his 20 relief appearances. That's three good starts in this day and age of the 100-pitch count.
He's broken the 30 mark three times, hitting a high of 39 on July 21 against the White Sox. Most recently, he tossed 30 pitches on Aug. 7 at Texas.
"It won't take me very long," Schilling said about a timeline for him to regain his stamina to start, although his velocity varies and he seems to have problems at times pushing off that foot.
"This was the sharpest I've seen him tonight," Francona said. "He was finishing his pitches."
When Foulke returns, Epstein said that the Red Sox would probably prefer to "ease" the closer back in as a surrogate to Schilling. And when Foulke passes that test, Schilling could be set in middle-inning mode so he can regain his starting stamina before another probable run in the playoffs.
Complicating this all is that the days of being sent to the Minor Leagues on a rehab assignment are also dwindling. The regular Minor League season ends on Sept. 1, with playoffs and quick eliminations to follow.
The way the American League East and AL Wild Card races are shaping up, every game is going to be an important one, so it's hardly the time to use regular-season games as a test lab for either Schilling or Foulke.
Life around the Red Sox is never dull and for the last two seasons Schilling has been a big part of it. He'll be 39 in November and no matter how one perceives him, he always has faced his job with guts and grit.
When the book on his career is written, he'll go down as one of the top big-game pitchers of his time. His performances in the 2001 postseason for the World Series-winning Diamondbacks and last year for the Red Sox were legendary. It's hard to imagine he still doesn't have a few more to pull out from under that Red Sox cap.