- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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"Very few guys in the game can be their own relief pitcher. Curt Schilling is one of those guys."
-- Phillies pitching coach Joe Kerrigan
Yep. He's his own setup man. He's his own closer. Of all active pitchers, Curt Schilling has completed a higher percentage of his starts (23) than anyone else in baseball. And that's no accident.
He's proud of his reputation as baseball's ultimate horse. But that also makes him the hardest pitcher alive to take out of a game. Any game.
"In Schill's case it was tough, particularly because he was so well-prepared," says Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly. "He always had a game plan to get the next guy out, regardless of how hot it was, what kind of day he was having, how many pitches he'd thrown in his last outing, whatever it may be. He always felt he could get the next guy out."
Terry Francona, the man who managed Schilling before and after Brenly, is lucky. He'd already lost most of his hair before that unique experience.
But Francona now has managed Schilling in two diametrically opposite situations -- first on a horrendous team in Philadelphia with the league's worst bullpen, now on a team in Boston that expects to be playing in October, with the league's best bullpen.
In Philadelphia, Francona left Schilling in to throw 125 pitches or more an astounding 30 times in three years, between 1997-99. He hasn't reached 125 once in his first seven starts in Boston, although he did hit 120, 121 and 123.
"I think people would look at that situation in Philadelphia and think that was easier," Francona says. "It was harder, because we had less options."
Schilling eventually needed shoulder surgery in 1999, a development almost certainly related to that workload. Francona admits he still wonders whether he did the right thing back then.
"I've done a lot of thinking about that," he says. "But at the time, it was almost damned if you do and damned if you don't. You ask a guy to give everything he has, and if you take him out, it's probably not going to work out the way you want it to. So the only way to go was to let him pitch. Schill was a guy who prepared so much and worked so hard, I just felt the right thing was to let him give up his own runs.
"He was our best option, even when he was tired. He didn't lose those games. You still had to beat him. I'm sure I stayed with him too long too many times. But he was our best option."
So in theory, Francona has a simpler call now, because he has relievers who might actually get people out. But he already has had to dodge one torrent of second-guessing for an April 22 game in Toronto in which Schilling threw 6 2/3 shutout innings, then gave up seven runs in a span of 10 hitters in a painful 7-3 loss. His 123rd, and final pitch, turned out to be a game-losing grand slam to Chris Gomez.
"I took a little heat for it, but I was fine with what I did," Francona says now. "When I look back, I'd do the same exact thing. I've seen Schill pitch so much, I'm more comfortable with him than anybody. ... That just wasn't the way I foresaw the ending."
Yeah, if only managers knew how it was going to end, it would add hours of sleep to their nights, add seasons to their careers and add years to their lives. So maybe they should hire a psychic, not a pitching coach.
1dJesse Rogers and Jerry Crasnick