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RED SOX NOTEBOOK

Garciaparra returns after bout with illness

Nomar Garciaparra, sidelined Sunday with what the Red Sox labeled flulike symptoms, was back at shortstop last night against the Devil Rays.

"He's better today and he's going to give it a shot," said manager Grady Little.

The star shortstop, who was in a 3-for-30 tailspin at the plate before taking a seat, hit in his familiar No. 3 hole, between second baseman Todd Walker and left fielder Manny Ramirez.

According to Little, it was a combination of rest and medication that had the 30-year-old Garciaparra on the mend.

Starting to think Bronson Arroyo, who provided two-run, four-hit relief over three innings Sunday, continues to impress Little. "He's not afraid to throw strikes, and he's quick to the plate," said Little. "He's also as fundamentally sound as anyone we've got." Still too early, said the manager, to consider Arroyo for a starter's role in 2004. And still too early to start shaping the final roster, be it with 11 or 12 pitchers, should the Sox make it to the postseason. "It's not too early to start thinking about it," said Little, "but it is too early to start talking about it." . . . Right fielder Trot Nixon, having a career year with his .309 batting average, 26 homers, and 85 RBIs, remained hobbled with the left calf strain he incurred last Tuesday. "He continues to get better. But is he ready to play? No," said Little. "He still has some running to do, and then we'll make sure he's OK." Gabe Kapler filled in again in right field. Kapler entered with a .333 average (18 for 54) in his previous 18 starts.

Better days Little on Tampa manager Lou Piniella's impact on the Rays, who were an improved 59-89 before last night: "He's done a great job. That team's as much improved as any team in baseball, and Lou's a big factor." Hard to think of the postseason without conjuring up the image of Piniella, blinded by the afternoon sun, reaching out a glove in right field to hold Jerry Remy to a single in the one-game playoff against the Yankees in 1978. Twenty-five years later, the play is often lost in the shadow of the Bucky Dent homer . . . The Sox began the evening with 217 homers, trailing only Atlanta (220) and Texas (218) . . . A veteran ticket scalper claims that the Sox had an employee stationed at the Kenmore MBTA stop to inform game-goers that tickets were still available at the Fenway ticket office. "They didn't tell them that they were standing room and obstructed view," said the scalper. "Never seen that before. The point was, they wanted 'em to steer clear of us."

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