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Leader of the pack

Ace feeling healthy, having fun in Florida

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The unseasonably chilly weather wasn't the only thing that felt a little different to Curt Schilling on Sunday as he began his fourth Spring Training with the Red Sox.

"I felt good," Schilling said after throwing his first bullpen session of camp. "It was a little different weather than we're used to down here. But you get the kinks out the first day, see everybody. It was fun."

When Schilling arrived on the scene before the 2004 season, he was the new kid on the block, albeit at the age of 37. Now, only Tim Wakefield has been in the starting rotation longer and Schilling can give advice to newcomers like Daisuke Matsuzaka.

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"We talked, we just talked," said Schilling. "Those are the times -- on the bus and on the planes -- where there isn't a lot going on that you start to get to know each other. Those are the times that we have fun together. And there's a language barrier there that I hope I can overcome enough to make him and [Hideki Okajima] comfortable enough to mix it up with the guys, because this is a fun group of guys.

"This can be a fun environment and you don't want them to miss how much fun that really is."

Since Pedro Martinez left after the 2004 season, Schilling became the clear leader and ace of the starting rotation. With Matsuzaka's arrival, much of the focus has been shifted. Schilling expects some adjustments this season, especially early on.

"All of the championship teams I've been on, you generally get through the season with no less than four guys who take the post every fifth day," he said. "But we've got some different factors here with Dice-K coming in from a six-man rotation and we've got some guys, Wakefield and I, who I'm sure they'll probably give that off-day, extra day to early on. I think it'll be a strength if we can stay healthy."

Schilling had his first formal introduction to Matsuzaka and Okajima on Sunday, as both joined Schilling in the first group of six Sox pitchers to begin throwing.

"I'm trying to learn a little conversational Japanese," Schilling said. "He's got a whole different gig going. There are 200 people here just for him. He gives off the impression that he doesn't want it to be an inconvenience to other people, which is, I think, a pretty neat thing."

"And [Okajima is] a good kid," Schilling added. "He's got a quiet sense of humor, a left-handed sense of humor. They're both good kids."

As for his 40-year-old body, Schilling said that after getting the "kinks" out, he anticipates being completely ready to face the Royals on April 2.

"I feel good," he said. "I'll be ready to go Opening Day. This is absolutely a World Series-caliber ballclub. We need to be ready right out of the chute, and I feel like I am. The preparation changes more on time [demands] than it does anything else. It takes more time to do things now than it did in the past. Warming up is just one of them. It takes me a little bit longer to get it cranked up and going, but it'll evolve over the spring."

"I'll tweak it as we go," he added.

Schilling once closed for the Red Sox in 2005, as a way to help the team when his balky ankle was still recovering from surgery after the 2004 World Series championship. While closing is not in the cards for Schilling this season, he is confident that one will emerge by Opening Day.

"It's crucial for any team," Schilling said of the need to find a closer. "We've got nine or 10 solid big-league arms down there, and out of those nine or 10 arms, we have to find a closer -- and I'm confident that'll happen. I think that role will be clearly defined when the season opens, which is all I really care about."

Like everyone else on the Red Sox, Schilling's 2006 season was divided into two parts. The first half featured a 10-3 start and Cy Young Award talk. He won just five more times, though, and finished with a 15-7 mark and a 3.97 ERA.

"I just didn't pitch well," Schilling said of his last two months. "I had a run of five, or six, or seven starts where I was matched up with [Johan] Santana and a bunch of No. 1s [starters] and pitched well and didn't get decisions. In a perfect year, you win all those games, and then you have a stinker or two and you get by, especially with this lineup. But I had some games in the second half where we didn't even have a chance to win. And that was probably the frustrating part."

In the final year of his contract, Schilling was asked if there was any progress to report regarding his negotiations with Sox general manager Theo Epstein.

"We'll see," Schilling said. "We're talking right now and we'll continue to talk."

Insisting he's not thinking about Cooperstown, Schilling reiterated his goals while he is still in the game.

"Hopefully I'm going to stay healthy and pitch these last two seasons, and hopefully win another World Series or two and 25 games each year and walk away healthy, if that's what we decide," he said. "But as far as that stuff goes, I really do not think about it."

With a new language and new faces to learn, who can blame him?

Mike Petraglia is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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