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BOB RYAN

This is more like it: Here's the guy they all know and love

I'll 'fess up. This is how bad it got watching Nomah.

Game 4; you know, the second Wakefield game. Sixth inning. One out. Todd Walker's on first with a single. I turn to the guy next to me and say, "Well, let's hope he strikes out. That's not too bad. Then Manny can get up with a man on."

And it wasn't as if Manny was looking like Hank Aaron himself at the time.

For high onto six weeks, he's been the Stepford Nomah, not Our Nomah. He's been Nomah the Poppah-Uppah. Nomah the Whiffah. Nomah the 6-4-3ah. Nomah the Rally-Killah. Our Nomah was famous for making hard outs. This Nomah was a glorified Mark Belanger. All over New England people were praying to the Deity of their choice, all demanding the same thing: "Please, God, give us back our Nomah!"

Last night the prayers were (finally) answered. Nomah singled to right in the first. Nomah singled to center in the fifth. Nomah ignited the big seventh-inning rally with a triple off the center-field fence (scoring on Hideki Matsui's accompanying throwing error). Nomah had a single behind the third base bag in the eighth. Nomah went 4 for 5 and scored two runs. He'll be fully back when he hits a three-run homah off Rogah tonight, but four-fifths, or seven-eighths, or whatever it was of Nomah was a tremendously welcome sight for the Boston Red Sox.

"It was certainly good," confirmed Grady Little. "It was good for him, and it was good for us. This guy is certainly capable of doing this any day he steps on the field. You know it's going to happen sooner or later, and it happened tonight."

Apparently, Little wasn't listening to the radio callers bombarding WEEI following Tuesday's game. Advising Grady to move Nomah down in the batting order was one thing. But people were actually suggesting he sit Nomah and replace him with best buddy Lou Merloni. Fans are wonderful people to have on your side, but some of them are a bit melodramatic.

Little never lost faith. When asked prior to Game 5 if he had ever seriously considered changing Nomah's slot in the order, he replied, "I feel like every day I write Nomar's name in the lineup he's going to get four or five hits that day, and that's not going to change."

And that's just one reason why he's the manager, and the rest of us aren't.

Kevin Millar was almost apoplectic when he heard that people were looking for Nomah to be benched or demoted. "He is such a professional," Millar said. "What you guys didn't see were some very good at-bats that didn't go his way. That's what you didn't see."

He's right. I know I didn't see those at-bats. But Grady Little did, and he's the one who matters.

"Grady's no front-runner," Millar continued. "He's the reason the clubhouse stays tame when things go crazy."

What was wrong with Nomah, anyway? No one knows, and it's likely no one will ever know. All players have slumps at some time or another, but Nomah wasn't having a slump; he was having a professional midlife crisis. He has been killing his team in the three-spot for six weeks. And when he wasn't doing that, he was killing them in the two-spot. It had actually reached the point where walking Nomah was about as bad as a National League pitcher walking the opposing pitcher. How foolish it was to walk a man who was surely going to get himself out sooner or later, probably sooner.

This wasn't a case of superior playoff pitching, great scouting reports, and the usual explanations whenever someone who has hit well for six months suddenly starts flirting with an 0 for October. He wasn't hitting against Baltimore or Tampa Bay, either. The first 10 games of the playoffs were a continuation of the last four weeks of the season.

Nomah being Nomah, he offered no ready explanation for his big evening at the plate.

"All I've done is go up there the same as I have been," he said. "I get a lot of confidence and support from my teammates, and the team's been unbelievable all year round. Just like, `Hey, go out there, keep doing what you're doing.' Keep going, a lot of prayer, going out there and a lot of support and, hopefully, good pitches, get the bat on the ball, and I was able to do that."

Of all his at-bats last night, the one that mattered most was the one leading off the seventh. The Red Sox were trailing, 6-4, and Jose Contreras was coming off a strong sixth in which he had struck out the side. The Red Sox were nine outs away from the season's end when Nomah jumped on a Contreras fastball out over the plate and drilled it to deep center, just the way Nomahs of the past seven years have done. Joe Torre would later say that ball wasn't hit that hard ("Just a fly ball. He didn't hit it real well"), but it carried 400 feet and missed clearing the fence by a foot or less. It was an easy triple, and it turned into an instant run when left fielder Matsui, backing up the play, picked up the ball and heaved it into the stands.

Suddenly, the growing aura of Contreras invincibility was shattered.

"I don't know if it was a sense or urgency," Nomah said of the team's desire to get to Contreras before Torre could summon Mariano Rivera. "That's the way this team has played all year. It's like `three outs, three outs, we're playing to the last out.' "

Seeing Nomah shake out of the slump had a therapeutic effect on the team. "It was huge," asserted Young Theo The GM. "You saw some big, aggressive swings, going to the middle of the field, which was emblematic of our approach. It was kind of a catharsis for Nomar, and a bit of a catharsis for our team."

From now on, when Nomah comes up, I'm going back to my old standards. I think the real Nomah is capable of doing more for the offense than not hitting into a double play.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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