FORT MYERS — Curt Schilling probably put it best, following a 35-pitch, four-inning Grapefruit League debut against college kids just getting to work on those future sunburns.
"I guess we're making normal seem really damn exciting right now," the 39-year-old said with a chuckle. "But after last year, normal is a really cool thing for me."
No news is, after all, the best news when it comes to the famous right ankle of the once-and-likely-future Red Sox ace.
He breezed through the first four innings of Boston's 10-0 matinee win over Boston College at City of Palms Park, tossing just eight balls while allowing only sophomore Jett Ruiz's single through the left side to lead off his last inning.
Schilling reported no conditioning concerns from a rapid-fire outing and never once tugged awkwardly at the ankle, a site as common as SPF 30 at camp a year ago. He said later that he knew from the release of his first pitch, a fastball to Eagles senior Dave Preziosi at 1:07 p.m., that Friday was going to be a very good day.
"I know what's happened since October 2004, and you hope that it's going to be normal again, you hope that it's always there," said Schilling, who struck out three and walked none. "But until it is, you don't know. I feel like today it was there."
He said he couldn't compare this spring to that of a year ago, when the offseason surgery on his ankle forced him to make just one Grapefruit League start before opening 2005 on the DL. He made three starts last April, posting an 8.15 ERA before being shelved until mid-July, then bounced from the bullpen to the rotation while throwing his fewest innings since 1994 and recording the highest full-season ERA (5.69) of a 15-year-career.
Schilling threw a handful of split-fingered fastballs, mixed in his curve and jumped ahead on every batter he faced. He acknowledged that he benefited from a strike zone more closely resembling that of the Atlantic Coast Conference than the big leagues, but was quick to point out that the competition level in no way detracted from the optimism.
"Doesn't matter to me," he said. "I tried to sequence pitches and approach it like I was facing big-league hitters. I threw a lot of strikes. There are teams that come in with a very aggressive mentality and these kids don't have another gear. From that standpoint, being sharp early in the count is always a big deal to me."
Manager Terry Francona kept the Eagles, six games into their season and fresh off the plane Thursday night, in perspective, but said he was more encouraged by Schilling's approach than his stats.
"If I thought about how I felt last year in my best starts and ranked them," he said, "today was in a different stratosphere compared to any point."
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"His focus right now is as good as I've ever seen it," Francona said. "Because he beat the BC Eagles doesn't mean he's gonna win the Cy Young, but what he's doing gives us a lot of reason to be very excited about what we think he can accomplish. He's not going to forget how to pitch. If he's healthy, he's going to be very good, and he looks very healthy to me."
Schilling said the first outing went "farther" than his expectations, adding that he thinks he can be better than two years ago — when he went 21-6 with a 3.26 ERA — despite the age and the tread on that famous ankle of his.
"I think I can be better than I was in 2004 because I have 2004 to use as an experience," he said. "I'm a year smarter on the hitters in this league, a year smarter on the rigors of pitching in the American League as opposed to the National League. I don't go into any season looking to duplicate something I've already done — I'm trying to do something I've never done before."