Bruce Hurst's last defense came in the basement of the Metrodome one night in July. He spoke with urgency, in a monologue that concluded with him saying, "Please don't ask those questions anymore."

It all seems so long ago, when Hurst's season was interrupted by a viral infection. Hurst is the Red Sox's ace now. He is the left-handed pitcher who can win in Fenway Park. Soon he will be baseball's most coveted free agent; General Manager Lou Gorman, the man trying to re-sign him, this week referred to Hurst as "our savior."His image has undergone almost a complete transformation. From a rookie season in which his fortitude was questioned openly, he is the winner of the Red Sox's biggest games, the player with "ice in his veins," (Marty Barrett), the one-strike-away MVP of the 1986 World Series.

This season, he pitched a 10-inning shutout after the Sox had lost four consecutive games in Detroit, perhaps Boston's most impressive pitching performance since Roger Clemens' 20-strikeout game in 1986. He pitched a three-hitter last week that all but buried the Yankees.

Maybe Hurst will not have to defend himself any more. In July, he returned to Boston from Minneapolis knowing only that he had given up 21 earned runs in 22 innings and that he felt so fatigued he did not want to pitch anymore.

His voice rose when he thought the questions pertained more to his desire than his health. It seemed almost a relief to him when the Red Sox announced he was suffering from a viral infection. "At least I know it wasn't in my head," he said.

"I guess I got a little angry," he said this week. "I don't know if I was justified, but I have to think that I was."

Hurst, 30, will be pitching for his 19th victory Friday night against the Yankees. He is trying to become the first Red Sox left-handed pitcher to win 20 since Mel Parnell in 1953.

Since coming off the disabled list July 24, he is 9-1, but he could be 12-0. The loss was in California on Sept. 3. He left with a 2-1 lead, and the Red Sox threw the game away. Boston won, 5-4, and lost, 4-3, in his two no-decisions.

Hurst was 70-67 when the season started. The Red Sox, knowing he would be eligible for free agency at the end of the season, offered him a two-year contract during spring training, but the two sides never came close.

There are discrepancies about the proposals: Hurst has been quoted as saying the Red Sox offered less than the Kansas City Royals pay left-hander Charlie Leibrandt, $1.25 million; Gorman denies this and said this week the contract would have been settled if Hurst had agreed to that much money.

Gorman said Hurst gambled by not signing during the spring. He said he made "a hell of an offer" to Hurst. But he acknowledged, "If I were in his position I would have done the same thing."

Now, Hurst is 16 games above .500 and possibly baseball's hottest commodity at a time when the free-agent market may be loosening for the first time since 1985.

The postseason could mean a fortune to him. If he pitches as he did in '86 - 1-0, 2.40 ERA in the playoffs; 2-0, 1.96 in the World Series - he probably could write his own contract.

John Harrington, president of majority owner Jean Yawkey's JRY Corp., said last week the team planned to have Hurst signed before he returned to his home in St. George, Utah. The team has acquired Mike Boddicker, a friend of Hurst, although Gorman said Boddicker's possible influence did not play a role in the team's decision to trade for him.

"I'm not closing any doors," Hurst said. "I've thought about it, I'm aware of it. But I haven't spent a lot of time with my decision. I don't deliberate about it.

"I'm sensitive to the way people have treated me, the nice things people have done for me. Yeah, I'll feel some loyalty, you bet I will. The Red Sox have given me a lot of opportunities, and you can't turn your back on that."