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ON BASEBALL

Nixon: swing votes

All happy he's back in form

When the afternoon ends with Felix Escalona and Dioner Navarro and Andy Phillips stepping into the batter's box for the Yankees and Adam Hyzdu and Ricky Gutierrez doing the same for the Red Sox, it's understood that this game will not gather much dust before it's expunged from memory. Except, of course, for the sweet moment when sore-kneed Ellis Burks, as classy as any player to wear a Sox uniform in a long time, said goodbye to the home crowd with a sweep of his cap and a gentleman's bow.

But the happiest development for Sox fans yesterday -- beyond seeing the Bombers' pitching staff barbecued for the second straight game as the Sox were as unforgiving to Kevin Brown's rusty right arm as a clubhouse wall was three weeks ago to his left jab -- was another exclamation point from Trot Nixon.

With another two-hit game, including a run-scoring double that hastened Brown's exit in a four-run first inning, the right fielder offered further evidence that he will be ready, willing, and dangerous when the playoffs begin next week against Oakland, Anaheim, or Minnesota.

"I think I've answered that, and I will continue to answer that in the next week," said Nixon, who is batting a remarkable .515 (17 for 33) in 11 games since he made his first start after coming back a second time from a strained left quadriceps, an injury that cost him 39 games after he'd already missed 63 games with back and quad problems dating back to spring training.

Since that start, against the Mariners in Seattle, Nixon has had seven two-hit games, including five doubles and two home runs, erasing any questions about whether he should be considered a candidate for the postseason roster.

"I can't say enough about how good I feel -- my quad, my whole body," said Nixon, who was one of the last Sox players to return to his locker after yesterday's 11-4 rout of the Yankees, having gone to the trainer's room for a rubdown that is part of his maintenance routine. "It's just a matter of consistency now. I get some soreness, like every ballplayer does, but there's no pain involved."

Nixon's progress during a season that had threatened to be a total washout stands in stark contrast to the situation the Yankees find themselves in with Jason Giambi on the brink of the postseason. Giambi, who has missed 69 games this season because of a sprained ankle, bouts with an intestinal parasite, and a benign tumor reportedly on his pituitary gland, still isn't right. He made just one pinch-hitting appearance over the weekend, and has just two hits in 18 at-bats this month.

Sox center fielder Johnny Damon admitted yesterday that he had begun to concede that Nixon might not be able to make his way back in time this season.

"We weren't expecting him to be healthy enough," Damon said, "but he's going at the right pace now. He's come up with hit after hit for us, and that's been huge. We weren't sure what we could count on."

For catcher Jason Varitek, however, it was an article of faith that Nixon would return.

"I never doubted it," he said. "I knew how much we need him. The guys who filled in [Gabe Kapler, Dave Roberts, and Kevin Millar, when he wasn't playing first base] did a great job, but you realize what an all-around force he is when he's out there.

"He's a grinder, he's a ballplayer, he's a great teammate. He plays with fire. When he's back, you realize how much you missed him."

Nixon, who worked vigorously with the Sox medical staff -- trainer Jim Rowe, assistant Chang Lee, and physical therapist Chris Correnti, along with a Brookline-based physical therapist, Scott Waugh -- said he's not temperamentally suited for being idle for so long. "I'm not a patient person," he said.

But while manager Terry Francona has been careful that Nixon doesn't push himself so hard he reaggravates the injury, which happened in late July -- Nixon won't start tonight against Tampa Bay rookie lefty Scott Kazmir -- the player says he feels he could be in the lineup every game in October, especially since there are days off built into the playoff schedule.

"He's starting to put better swings on the ball," general manager Theo Epstein said. "And his baserunning and defense are getting better every day. I don't think there are that many risks in using him [during the playoffs]."

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