There are few players in baseball who look forward to the dawn of the 2006 season more than Red Sox ace Curt Schilling, who has spent the last few weeks salivating at the prospect of turning last year's struggles into a rare blip in his otherwise brilliant career.
Schilling, who takes the ball for the Sox's season opener Monday in Texas, has felt nothing like the man who was hobbling after ankle surgery last year at this time and had to start the season on the disabled list.
Now, he has his swagger back and is looking forward to reclaiming his status as one of the best pitchers in baseball.
The word Schilling used with the most delight this spring was "normal." And that's because last year was so abnormal.
"I know what's happened since October in 2004. The hope that it was going to be normal again was always there. Until it is, you don't know," said Schilling. "I guess I'm making normal seem very exciting right now. But after last year, normal is a very cool thing for me."
Can Schilling, even at the age of 39, produce the type of normalcy he had in 2004, when he won 21 games and helped lift the Red Sox to their first World Series championship in 86 years?
"I think I can be better than I was in 2004, because I have 2004 to use as an experience," Schilling said. "I'm a year smarter on the hitters in this league. I'm a year smarter on the rigors of pitching in the American League as opposed to the National League. So, I don't go into any season looking to duplicate anything I've done. I'm trying to do something I've never done before."
One thing Schilling hasn't done in some time is pitch an Opening Day. Believe it or not, this is the first time he's done it since 1999, when he was playing under current manager Terry Francona in Philadelphia.
Because Schilling shared a rotation with future Hall of Famers for four consecutive openers (Randy Johnson 2001-03, Pedro Martinez '04), he often waited until Game 2.
But now, he gets a big stage, something Schilling has thrived on throughout his career.
"It's cool, you know, it's been awhile since I've pitched Opening Day," said Schilling. "It's always an electric day, it's a lot of fun. I just want it to get here, more than anything."
This will be the first time Schilling has pitched at Ameriquest Field, and he'll be opposed by veteran right-hander Kevin Millwood.
A preparation freak, Schilling started dissecting the Rangers' lineup in mid-March.
"There's not a lineup in this league that isn't a good test," said Schilling. "This league, top to bottom, has offenses that can hit. In that ballpark, going up against Kevin, it's going to be a challenge."
The Red Sox will unveil a roster with a different look, most notably in the infield, where Kevin Youkilis, Mark Loretta, Alex Gonzalez and Mike Lowell take over as the starters. Coco Crisp officially beings life AD (After Damon) in center and in the leadoff spot.
Four trusted veterans remain in the lineup, with Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek hitting behind the monster-mashing 3-4 combo of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.
"This is a very deep club," Schilling said. "We've got six starting pitchers that could be in anybody's rotation, we've got a very, very deep bullpen. Offensively, I don't see where we're going to slack off, if we do. ... We've got some guys in Triple-A that could be on anybody's big-league team as well. It's going to come down to going out and executing."
But in Game 1, all eyes will be on Schilling.
|Red Sox probable lineup|
BOS: RHP Curt Schilling
8-8, 5.69 ERA in 2005
1-0, 0.00 ERA in 2005 vs. TEX
2-0, 3.78 ERA lifetime vs. TEX TEX: RHP Kevin Millwood
9-11, 2.86 ERA in 2005
1-1, 3.75 ERA in 2005 vs. BOS
3-2, 3.71 ERA lifetime vs. BOS On the Internet
Official game notes On television
TEX: KDFW (Channel 4) On radio
BOS: WEEI 850 AM, WROL 950 AM (Español)
TEX: KRLD 1080 AM, KFLC 1270 AM (Español) On deck
Tuesday: at Texas, 8:05 p.m. ET
Wednesday: at Texas, 8:05 p.m. ET
Friday: at Baltimore, 7:05 p.m. ET
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.