Despite being in first place in the AL East, the Boston Red Sox went into the All-Star break struggling and with big problems in their bullpen.
With Schilling off the disabled list and ready to take a shot at filling the team’s late-inning void, the Red Sox and Yankees meet at Fenway Park in the opener of a critical four-game series.
Boston has managed to stay in first place despite limping into the break with eight losses in its last 13 games, including three losses in four games to second-place Baltimore over the weekend. The Red Sox had a chance in the first half to build up their division lead while the Orioles and Yankees struggled, but Baltimore has pulled within two games and New York, 7-3 in its last 10, is just 2 1/2 back.
Much of Boston’s struggles can be attributed to a tattered bullpen that has been hit by injury and ineffectiveness. Closer Keith Foulke compiled a 6.23 ERA, then went on the disabled list and had arthroscopic knee surgery last Thursday. He’s not expected back before mid-August.
Enter 2004 playoff hero and Yankee nemesis Schilling, who has been rehabbing his right ankle in the minors. With the bullpen hurting, the Red Sox may let him take a shot at the closer’s role, and Schilling pitched a scoreless relief inning in each of his last two outings with Triple-A Pawtucket.
“I want to be in the big leagues pitching, and I’m anxious to get back,” Schilling said after Sunday’s appearance. “I felt good today. I felt stronger than I did yesterday, which is good.”
Boston tried to further bolster the bullpen Wednesday by acquiring sidearmer Chad Bradford from Oakland for outfielder Jay Payton and cash considerations. Bradford, on the disabled list since undergoing lower back surgery last March 7, also has been activated for this series.
A Schilling return would add to the usual charged Fenway atmosphere for a matchup with the Yankees, as New York makes its second visit of the season to Boston. The situation could be especially tense in right field, where the Yankees’ Gary Sheffield will man his position for the first time since getting into an altercation with two fans in the corner April 14.
In that game, the finale of a three-game set, Sheffield was chasing Jason Varitek’s triple when a fan reached over the 3-foot high fence, and Sheffield said he was hit in the face.
Sheffield picked up the ball, pushed the fan, then threw the ball to the infield. Sheffield turned toward the fan, but a security guard jumped over the wall and stood between the two. Another fan apparently tossed a beer in Sheffield’s direction during the scuffle.
On the field, the Red Sox will look to Bronson Arroyo on Thursday to shut down a red-hot Yankees lineup. New York scored 62 runs in winning seven of its last eight and is benefiting from the resurgence of Jason Giambi, who is 11-for-20 with five homers and 10 RBIs in his last seven contests.
“Playing the way we’re playing right now, you want to play the first-place team in our division,” Sheffield said.
The teams don’t meet again until Sept. 9-11 at Yankee Stadium.