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ON BASEBALL

Nixon back in the right place

DENVER -- The Red Sox can only hope that Trot Nixon's return to the lineup will impact the big picture, because last night's 7-6 loss to the Colorado Rockies was an exercise in offensive frustration.

Nixon's debut was a mixed bag; 1 for 4 with a solo home run and a walk, as well as a double-play ball and a strike out with runners at first and second in the ninth when he had his best chance to impact the outcome. Not that Nixon has to save the day. He just needs to be part of the solution for an offense that can't seem to get the big hit when it needs it most.

"I thought it was OK," said Nixon of his return. "The last at-bat, I got off some good swings. I might have overswung. It seems the harder the guy throws the harder you want to swing. But the fact is we lost the game. I'd trade in that home run for a win, that's for sure."

The Sox' offense is turning the hitters' paradise known as Coors Field into a hitters' nightmare. They had the bases loaded with two outs in the fifth when Curt Schilling tapped back to the pitcher for the final out. While Schilling can't be blamed because he was in the batting order for the first time this season, the Sox continued to struggle with the bases full and two outs, lowering their average in such situations to .122 (5 for 41). They also are hitting just .237 with runners in scoring position.

The Sox have to hope that eventually Nixon, who was hitting in the sixth spot, will help this lineup go on the same kind of tear it went on last season.

While it rained all day, it cleared up by game time and though the grass was a bit wet, Nixon played right field. He wasn't concerned about slipping on the wet turf and reinjuring himself.

"I felt very good most of the time," Nixon said. "There were times I didn't feel so good, but I think that was because of the cool weather. It seems every day I play I have to answer questions on how I'm going to feel after this or that. But I feel good now and I think I'll probably feel good tomorrow."

Nixon drove a ball to the warning track in right-center in the second inning and homered in the fourth after saying prior to the game, "I'm not going to go up there trying to hit one out of the ballpark, and I know it's tempting here. I'm just going to try and get a few base hits."

The Sox are hoping Nixon can stabilize a lineup that hasn't produced as it did last season. Through 64 games last year, the Sox were hitting .298 with 78 home runs, 688 hits, and 403 runs. Compare that with a .271 average with 76 homers, 607 hits, and 335 runs in 2004.

At this time a year ago, Nixon was hitting .304 with eight homers and 37 RBIs. He wound up batting .306 with 28 homers, 24 doubles, and 87 RBIs.

With Todd Walker in Chicago (Cubs) having a good season; American League batting champion Bill Mueller on the disabled list after arthroscopic knee surgery; and Ellis Burks, a righthanded bat who was supposed to be a key component barely having played because of his own knee woes, the additions of Nixon and Garciaparra are beginning to make this lineup look like the one the Red Sox envisioned.

"I've always just looked at myself as a missing piece of the puzzle," said Nixon, who struck out in the ninth with two on. " `Clutch,' that's someone else's word. I don't necessarily apply that to myself. I just want to be like everyone else in this lineup. We all bring something different to the lineup, and if my piece of it has been missing, well, I'm back now and I need to start holding up my end of things."

Nixon didn't seem to have a lot of rust, looking like a hitter who had had a lot of at-bats in extended spring training and rehab assignments in Single and Triple A.

"It's not quite like Opening Day in terms of the excitement," he said. "My teammates have played a lot of baseball and I've watched some of the games and it's been very frustrating. After I signed the contract in the offseason I was so happy, and I was going to settle in here and spend my career here. And then you get hurt and all of that is kind of thrown off a bit."

Hitting coach Ron Jackson understands what Nixon means to the lineup.

"It's one guy feeding off each other," Jackson said. "Trot's a good hitter, a productive hitter. We haven't been getting the big hits as regularly as we did last season, and I think Trot is going to help us.

"We're going to have a solid lineup again. I mean, [Kevin] Youkilis and Pokey [Reese] have made big contributions to our lineup. Last year when we had hitters' counts like 3-and-1, 2-and-1, we just tore the cover off the ball. It's just something I think we can start getting back to with our lineup being more set.

"I think last year's lineup was a lot looser because there wasn't that pressure on every hitter to feel like they had to do it all themselves. With the injuries we've had there's been more pressure on [Jason Varitek] and Manny [Ramirez] and our other hitters to carry the load. With Nomar and Trot back that load is now more evenly distributed, and I think that plays very well to the mind-set of the hitter." The Sox almost came all the way back in the ninth last night, but with runners at second and third and two outs, Dave McCarty couldn't produce a big pinch hit. Sometime soon, the Sox will need to keep pace with the Yankees' offense. 

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