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A happy return for Garciaparra

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Nomar Garciaparra would not be so rash as to offer a date for when he'll be back in a Boston uniform. But in the aftermath of the five innings he played here last night for Triple A Pawtucket in his first game action in 87 days, do not be surprised if the All-Star shortstop makes his return a week from tomorrow, when the Red Sox play the San Diego Padres in Fenway Park.

Despite missing four months after wrist surgery in 2001, Garciaparra needed only four games with the PawSox before pronouncing himself ready, and hit a home run in his first game back in the Fens. And while he ruled out joining the Sox this weekend in Kansas City, Mo., he was encouraged enough last night to suggest that he'll be back soon.

"We'll see," he said. "You never know. I wouldn't rule it out. We'll see how it goes."

Contrary to what Sox officials said Saturday, Garciaparra said it hasn't been decided whether he will return to Boston after playing here again this afternoon, when he hopes to play another five innings.

"I don't know where that came from," he said. "We'll reevaluate after I play tomorrow, but if I don't go back, I'll stay here and play."

The PawSox play here again tomorrow, then go to Toledo for a four-game set that begins Thursday. Playing nine innings in a game, he said, would not be a prerequisite to returning to the Sox.

"I'd like to get some more at-bats," he said. "I'd like to play seven innings, but no, not nine, necessarily."

Garciaparra, sidelined by tendinitis in his right Achilles' tendon since March 5, when he said he was struck by a batted ball on a back field during a spring-training workout in Fort Myers, Fla., went hitless in three at-bats yesterday, while handling a ground ball hit directly at him and catching two popups. He hit a one-hop smash to short on the first pitch he saw on his first at-bat, was called out when first-base umpire Mike Belin ruled he failed to check his swing on a 1-and-2 pitch, and hit a routine grounder to short on a 2-and-0 pitch on his last at-bat. He ran freely and showed no sign of a limp.

All three plate appearances came against Louisville lefthander Brandon Claussen, the one-time prized Yankee prospect who underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery, then was traded last season to the Reds for Aaron Boone.

"Tonight, I felt good," said Garciaparra. "The first one, right off the bat, I swung and hit it hard and got right out of the box. That was instinctive. I didn't think about it. When I was simulating things, I thought about it."

He joked about offering at Claussen's first delivery.

"I don't know what the over-under was that I'd swing at the first one," he said. "But the next at-bat I just wanted to see some pitches. The last one felt good, I just missed it."

As eager as he was to return, Garciaparra almost didn't get the chance, as tornado warnings placed the game in jeopardy. One twister actually was spotted by PawSox announcer Andy Freed just across the Ohio River beyond the left-field fence, on the other side of the Kennedy bridge that connects Kentucky to Indiana.

"I didn't see it," Garciaparra said, "but there were alarms going off and they were telling us to get into the basement. Crazy."

The start of the game was delayed by 25 minutes, but the field drained nicely and Garciaparra said that while he and PawSox manager Buddy Bailey discussed holding him out of the game, his only concern was not to be overzealous in running down flares to the outfield. He didn't have to make that play, though left fielder Justin Sherrod dropped to the ground to avoid tumbling into Garciaparra on a routine pop into short left.

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