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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Nixon is eager to hit his stride

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- In the immediate moments after Wednesday night's win over the Anaheim Angels, reporters gathered three-deep around the locker of catcher Jason Varitek, who clubbed a two-run homer to tie the game in the sixth, and helped navigate the heartening performance of Pedro Martinez, who notched a convincing playoff win, demonstrating high heat and the kind of location that has eluded him for weeks.

Naturally, as Varitek prepared to address the media, at least one of those topics seemed destined to dominate the postgame banter in his corner of the clubhouse.

But Varitek had something else on his mind. He was immediately peppered with questions about Martinez's pitches, his homer and the poise of the bullpen, but he passed on them all.

"What I'd like to do is compliment Trot Nixon on his clutch hit," said Varitek. "That was a huge, huge play for us."

Nixon had come up with one out in the ninth, and the Red Sox clinging to a 4-3 lead. There were two men on, including the previous batter, David Ortiz, who was intentionally walked by Brendan Donnelly so he could face Nixon.

Can you blame Donnelly, or manager Mike Scioscia? Ortiz is flat-out scary at the plate, the way Manny is, and the way Vladimir Guerrero is, despite his struggles in this series. Nixon, meanwhile, simply hasn't played enough this season to generate that kind of respect -- or fear.

"We know people are always going to pitch around Manny and Ortiz," Nixon said. "You just have to be able to make them pay."

In the early innings, that task appeared to be a tall order for Nixon, who missed most of the season with the kind of infuriating injuries that damage a player's psyche. It all started with a sore back after the long ride to spring training, degenerated into a herniated disk, then spiraled downward with a quadriceps injury during rehabilitation. Nixon missed 69 games, returned briefly, then landed back on the DL for another 39 games.

He sat in Game 1 of the postseason against the lefthander, Jarrod Washburn, and, to put it politely, looked somewhat overwhelmed early in Game 2 against starter Bartolo Colon.

Twice, an eager Nixon bit on the first pitch, and twice he flied harmlessly to left. In the sixth, after Ortiz beat out a broken-bat infield single, Nixon, looking to be patient, ran the count to 2-and-1 before grounding into a 4-6-3 double play.

In the seventh, with the Red Sox threatening to score, the Angels intentionally walked Ortiz, preferring to dare Nixon to beat them. He stranded two runners with a grounder to first.

As he retreated to the dugout, he tried to bring his emotions -- and his adrenaline -- down a notch.

"I get geared up [for the playoffs], sometimes too much," Nixon acknowledged. "But, after a few at-bats, you get back in the groove. There's no way not to be too amped for the playoffs. The key is to get out in the field and get in the flow of the game, and settle down."

Settle down. He offered that quick reminder to himself as he stepped into the batter's box against Donnelly in the ninth. He fouled off four pitches before rapping an RBI single up the middle, scoring Ramirez, and helping to break open what was a white-knuckle lead.

Nixon has always been a natural leader on this team, a player who commands the kind of unsolicited respect that Varitek offered up Wednesday night. He has also been a longtime fan favorite -- remember when the Cubs had interest in him, and local sports radio was flooded with calls that bristled at the prospect of Nixon being swapped for Sammy Sosa?

It would be understandable if Nixon became bent on making his mark in this second season, after missing so much of the regular grind. Yet Nixon insists he has guarded against pressing in the playoffs to make up for lost time.

"I don't look at it that way," Nixon said. "I'm just glad to be playing. You never know when an injury could happen. It could have happened later, and I wouldn't be playing now."

Tell Anaheim about it. As the Angels limp into Fenway down 2-0, they are left to wonder if it would be different if either the injured Adam Kennedy or Tim Salmon were able to play.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, stopped worrying about Nixon weeks ago, when he put up superb numbers in his final 15 regular-season games (.435 average, 3 home runs, 10 RBIs, and 8 multi-hit games) to plead his case.

Nixon is expected to be in the lineup today for Game 3 at Fenway, batting behind Ramirez and Ortiz. He knows one single isn't enough to alter the Angels' strategy, and he could be called on again to prove he can deliver in the clutch.

"That was no easy at-bat," said Kevin Millar.

None of them are this time of year.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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