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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Looks like a short stop is left for Fenway fans

Fenway returned to normal last night. No. 5 was running his sprints in the outfield before the game. He was in the first base dugout, surrounded by his equipment, concentrating like only he can, flashing that "touch-my-stuff-and-I'll-kill-you" look toward anyone who made eye contact. He signed autographs while standing by the tarp.

And he was in the batter's box, kicking the toes of his shoes into the dirt, twitching, blinking, and fidgeting with his batting gloves. Making his comeback from Achilles' tendinitis, Nomar went 1 for 2 against the Padres and was pulled from the game after a 2-hour-21-minute rain delay interrupted the sixth inning.

Enjoy watching Nomie while you can, Sox fans. These are the final days of Nomah in Boston.

Nomar at short for the Sox in 2005? You've got a better chance of seeing Grady Little making out the Sox' lineup card. Assuming he stays healthy and not counting potential playoffs, these will be Nomar Garciaparra's last 105 games with the Red Sox.

Think about it. He turned down four years and $60 million in the spring of 2003. And that was before the bad September/October, before the attempt to dump him, before the market correction, and before the mysterious injury that put him on the shelf for the first 57 games of this win-or-bust Red Sox season. He still looks as happy as a guy in the on deck circle at the root canal clinic and his agent is telling people he wants to play second base for the Yankees next year. He's already announced there'll be no Nomar Bowl in 2005. Does he need to draw a map for us?

By any measure, Garciaparra is one of the most popular Sox players of all time. He's the fourth-leading hitter in franchise history, trailing only Ted Williams, Wade Boggs, and Tris Speaker. He has played hard for every inning of every game since he first got called up at the end of the 1996 season. This is a guy who hit .372 in 2000. He's got the name, the game and the fame to put him in the Ted/Russ/Bobby/Larry Pantheon. All he needs is longevity. Too bad he won't be playing here long enough to take a seat with the elite.

Nomar got to the ballpark just before 2 p.m. yesterday, met with the Sox medical staff, and it was decided he'd return to the lineup (batting in the No. 5 spot) after five hits in 21 at-bats for Pawtucket. There was a press conference at 4:15, and Garciaparra said just about nothing.

We were hoping for one of those Maxwellian "Hop on my back, boys, and I'll take you on home from here" speeches but by now we know that that's not Nomie.

"I'll never be 100 percent," he conceded. "I just said I'd come back when I was ready to play . . . It's like Opening Day for me. The great thing is I get to play baseball."

When a reporter asked about accusations that he was "sticking it to the team" by delaying his return, Garciaparra laughed and said, "Who said that? Give me a name and I'll address it." Later, he added, "If I was taking my time, I'd see you in August."

A few hours later, with the ballpark typically full, the loyal legions stood and cheered when Nomie ran onto the lawn to the tune of John Fogarty's "Center Field" at 7:05. No longer flanked by Todd Walker and Bill Mueller as he was when he last played in October, Garciaparra chatted with second baseman Mark Bellhorn while they took practice grounders from first-time first baseman Andy Dominique. Pokey Reese did not start this game. On the night of Nomar's return, the best fielding shortstop in the AL East took a seat on the Red Sox bench.

This was Garciaparra's first game since the seventh game of the ALCS when he jogged off the field after Aaron Boone's 11th-inning homer. It was his first game since the Sox tried to trade him to the White Sox. It was his first game since he called a Boston sports talk show during his honeymoon. It was his first game since his agent blasted the Sox. It was his first game since he came to spring training and told the world how hurt he was by the trade attempt. It was his first game since the mysterious ball off the Achilles' (the magic bullet theory of sports injuries) that took him out of spring training and out of the first 57 games of the Red Sox season.

His first action came in the top of the second when Ramon Hernandez hit a room-service-hop doubleplay grounder to short. It was an easy 6-4-3. In the bottom of the second, he got another (longer) standing ovation when he stepped in to face Brian Lawrence. Naturally, he swung at the first pitch and grounded it outside the third base line. He drove a single to left on the next pitch. It was his first hit for the Red Sox since a singler off Mike Mussina in the fifth inning of Game 7 at Yankee Stadium. In his second at bat, on a 1-and-1 pitch, Garciaparra smoked a liner to left which was snared by Terrence Long.

Nomar's toughest play of his return stint resulted in two runs for the Padres. With runners on first and second in the fifth, Garciaparra went into the hole to stab a hot grounder by Brian Giles. Nomar set himself and made a long throw which bounced in front of Dominique, who looked like a catcher trying to play first base. The poor kid boxed the bounce, then threw wildly toward home. Two runs. One error -- on Dominique.

A Doppler delay cleared the field in the middle of the sixth. A few of the fans waited, but there would be no more Nomar.

"That kind of cut my night a little short," said Garciaparra. "It was great to be out there, I had all the adrenaline going. The fans welcomed me back again and I deeply and truly appreciated it."

By now the Nation is used to waiting for Nomar. And in the first 57 games of this season, we all had a chance to see what the team will look like when he's gone for good.

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

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