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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Red Sox are hoping Foulke won't be out of joint

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Opening Day is three weeks from today and Red Sox closer Keith Foulke still hasn't pitched in a spring training game. He's coming back from two knee surgeries and yesterday he got two more injections of Synvisc, a lubricant believed to be similar to what was used on the Tin Man in ''The Wizard of Oz."

Somehow this doesn't seem like an ideal situation. Every other contender in the American League East knows what to expect from its closer. The Yankees go into the season pretty darn sure they're going to get good work from Mariano Rivera at the end of the game. The Blue Jays have a new flamethrower in B.J. Ryan.

The Red Sox? They have Foulkie, who sat in the clubhouse just before noon yesterday with massive ice bags wrapped around his knees. Can he possibly be ready in time for the start of the season?

''We'll find out," Foulke said in between bites of a sandwich. ''If not, I'm sure we'll talk about it again. But it's coming along nicely and I do feel better now than I have in a few years, so hopefully the last 2 1/2 weeks of camp we'll be able to get it dialed in and be ready to go.

''I've been throwing quite a bit. I haven't been in a game yet but, to me, games aren't really important. I have no reservations about being ready for Opening Day. I could go pitch right now.

''I think I'll be a hell of a lot better pitcher than I was in '04 [yes, he said '04]. When you see me panic, then it's time to panic. Until I panic, no one else needs to panic."

Manager Terry Francona said, ''We could run him out there and he might go backwards. We're trying to build him up so that when he does go out there, he's ready to compete. It's a little bit difficult coming into the last two weeks before the season, and last year was a fiasco, but you're dealing with human beings and not every situation is perfect."

Far from perfect, this situation puts the team in a bind to some degree. Foulke was lights-out in his first season with the Sox and could have been MVP of the 2004 World Series. Now he's coming back from a terrible season and two knee surgeries.

Even when healthy, he's difficult to judge in spring training because he's a changeup artist and hitters sometimes feast when he's working on mechanics. He was awful in Florida two years ago, then pitched well when it counted. Now he's got limited time to get back on the mound, and if he gets hammered in spring games, the Sox won't know if it's because he's not right or if it's just Foulkie being Foulkie in Florida. The test won't come until the real games begin in April, and the discovery process is going to cost some games if Foulke underperforms.

We all know what happened last year. Foulke struggled out of the gate, had one knee scoped in July, pitched three rehab games in Lowell, and returned for six games in September before shutting it down. Along the way he insulted the fans, told us he doesn't like baseball, and appeared miserable just about all the time. He finished with 15 saves and a 5.91 ERA in 43 games. When the Sox were losing their second playoff game in Chicago, Foulke was watching the Bruins at the Garden. Now he comes to the balllpark, works early, and goes home to watch NASCAR while his teammates play in the games.

The Sox want to give Foulke a shot at his old job and know they'll be well served if he can pitch like he did in 2004.

''He's coming along good," said pitching coach Al Nipper. ''He threw on the side today and he's looking pretty good right now. I'm very pleased."

''He looks great," said Curt Schilling. ''He's throwing harder than I've ever seen him throw."

Meanwhile, Jonathan Papelbon, the man who represents Plan B, started against the Twins yesterday and was roughed up for five runs on six hits in a mere 3 1/3 innings. Papelbon's having a rough spring thus far, but has closer stuff (34 strikeouts in 34 big league innings) and Sox fans remember him striking out the side against Tampa Bay in September. But we remind you that he was in Double A a year ago and he never has saved a game in the majors. He's a nice option for Francona, but Mike Timlin might be the safer choice. A kid closer who fails in Boston could be permanently damaged.

''We've talked about [using Papelbon as the closer], but we're not even concerned about that right now," said Nipper. ''Foulke will be ready."

Foulke will be ready. That's what they're all saying. What they can't say is that Foulke is going to be on a short leash in these next few weeks. The Sox are committed to giving him a chance, but they can't let him torpedo the early part of their season if he's not right. It's too important, and they think they have a young guy who's ready to do the job.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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