Almost 11 months ago, Gabe Kapler stepped into the batter's box at Fenway Park for the first time since returning from a brief and lackluster stint with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan.
As Kapler stood, the fans stood as well, offering one of their favorite players the ultimate welcome home.
Last night was standing ovation No. 2 for Kapler, who returned to Fenway after nine months of rehabbing the Achilles' tendon he ruptured in September while rounding second base on a Tony Graffanino home run in Toronto. Kapler stopped before entering the batter's box long enough to raise a hand in acknowledgement to both sides of the park before taking his first swing at Fenway this year.
The welcomes were not lost on Kapler, who has lauded Sox fans since joining the team in 2004.
``We have the best, and, to be more specific, the classiest fans in all of sports," said Kapler, who took Trot Nixon's spot in right field and batted eighth against the Nationals last night. ``And the reason I say that is because they recognize and care about hard work as well as people, human beings. Contributions [from players] other than superstars. They recognize every player on the roster.
``They recognize contributions from guys like Alex Cora, and, in the past, from a pitcher who would get one out. They always seem to recognize effort. I'm just blown away by their consistency and their knowledge of the game."
Days after rupturing his tendon, Kapler had surgery in Los Angeles, and he has been rehabbing ever since. His quick return surprised many, including manager Terry Francona, who repeatedly has said that while Kapler might not be an everyday starter, his contribution is invaluable.
``You can't make moves because guys are good guys," Francona said. ``But when they really are good guys, it's so nice to be able to reward a guy that does what Gabe does. He brings so much to a clubhouse.
``Some guys assume roles of leadership. It's not often that you see guys that are not everyday players that do, but he can pull it off. That's a pretty big compliment."
Kapler's first game back with the Sox was Saturday against Atlanta. He singled in his only at-bat, reaching for a pitch on an 0-and-2 count, and later he made a diving catch in left field.
Last season, from July 30 (his first game back) to his injury Sept. 14, Kapler hit .247 in 97 at-bats, with 7 doubles, 1 homer, and 9 RBIs. He had a .282 on-base average and a .351 slugging percentage.
Before joining the team in Atlanta, Kapler toured the minor leagues for a rehab stint, which started June 2 in Fort Myers, Fla., with a four-game extended spring training. He moved to Double A Portland for three games (going 4 for 10), and finished up at Triple A Pawtucket, where he played four games and went 3 for 15. Kapler said he still isn't running the way he did before the injury.
``I need to get it warm and keep it warm," he said. ``That's my responsibility, so once I've done that, then good things tend to happen, and I feel pretty good about my positioning on the field. It gets sore a little bit. I think any time you have a serious injury, you're going to have a little soreness, but I'm ready to play baseball.
``There's nothing on the field that I can't do. In terms of my normal capabilities, I'm in the same position."
His rehab started with stretching and soft tissue work, moved to walking, then jogging and agility work. After that, he did tendon and calf strengthening and later explosive-motion training and cardiovascular exercises. He also lifted weights when he could.
His start last night was simply a way to give Nixon a rest, Francona said.
``[Nixon] has been playing a lot," Francona said. ``I think he's kind of beat up. I had to wrestle with him a little bit. [Jason] Varitek won't play tomorrow. That's two lefthanded bats, and I don't want to [have Nixon and Varitek out] in one day.
``As long as Kapler's here, give him three, four, five at-bats. It will work out well."