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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Enjoy it for what it's worth

Another strange night in the ``let's-take-a-year-off-from-the-playoffs" Red Sox season. Good news all around at Fenway. Almost perfect, in fact.

The first great development came when David Ortiz returned to the lineup for the first time since Aug. 27. Then the Sox announced that rookie closer sensation Jonathan Papelbon doesn't have a tear in his shoulder. Further delighting a Nation that's taken quite a few hits lately, rookie lefthander Kason Gabbard pitched like a vintage Bruce Hurst, shutting out the world champion White Sox on three hits over seven innings and Mike Timlin pitched two stellar innings of relief. Trot Nixon celebrated his Final Days with a crucial double.

The only glitch in the proceedings was another victory by the local nine. Once again paying no attention to the master plan designed by the men in baseball ops, the Red Sox beat the White Sox, 1-0. Disregarding the symbolic memo from above, the Red Sox tonight have a chance to sweep the champs, and some dreamers no doubt are talking about the playoffs again.

``Our race is not over," Timlin announced after retiring Jim Thome for the final out. ``We know it. Everybody in town knows it. Everybody in other towns knows it. We just have to take care of business."

Go figure. The Sons of Terry Francona are 4-2 since Theo Epstein raised the white flag over Fenway with the announcement of the David Wells deal last Thursday. Time to bring back former Colts coach Jim Mora for his time-tested press conference in which he kept saying, ``Playoffs?"

To their credit, the men in the Boston dugout are still playing as if the games count. And now they have their entire lineup back, thanks to the return of franchise face David Ortiz.

Given everything that's happened to this team over the last few weeks, the announcement that Papelbon is whole and the return of Big Papi were easily the most encouraging developments of Tidy Tuesday (nine innings in 2:14). Big Papi went 0 for 3 with a couple of punchouts, but who cares? He's back, and for a few hours at least, so are the Red Sox.

Francona had this to say about Papelbon's ``transient subluxation":

``I thought that was a guy that hides under a bridge," joked the manager.

On a more serious note, he reminded all, ``It was good news. It was huge good news."

Ortiz's name was on the lineup card posted next to the clubhouse door when reporters were allowed in the Sox locker room at 3:30 p.m. Papi sat at his locker in the far corner, speaking on a cellphone (headset gear), wearing black shorts, a black headband, and a T-shirt that read, ``It's a strong man's game." A pack of reporters and camera-toting folk surrounded his locker while he concluded his personal business on the phone. At one point he looked up to see his image on ``SportsCenter."

When he finished his phone call, Ortiz stood up and said, ``Hopefully you guys don't understand Spanish.

``I'm happy to be back," he started. ``I want to keep winning and we won a good game last night. But sometimes you come back like that and you try to overdo things. It doesn't work like that. I've been around for a while and during the season when you stop playing, it takes a minute to get your rhythm back. I'm just going to do what I know how to do."

The Red Sox record for home runs in a season is 50 (Jimmie Foxx in 1938) and Ortiz looked to be on his way to as many as 60 when he hit No. 47 in Seattle Aug. 27. He flew to Oakland with the Red Sox that night, but never played in the three-game series against the A's. He experienced heart palpitations for the second time in 10 days and the Sox flew him back to Boston for testing. Yesterday, doctors finally cleared him to play.

Is he still thinking about 50 homers?

``I'm not thinking about it now," said Papi. ``I swing hard . . . but I never think about hitting home runs. But I feel good. I'm happy to be back in the lineup trying to produce some runs. ``You want to be out there, especially when your team really needs you. I like to be out there. I'm not afraid of anything."

Asked if he was on any medication, Ortiz said, ``No," then added, ``rice, chicken, and beans." He has avoided citing ``heart palpitations" when discussing his recent medical woes. In Seattle he talked about stress and dehydration; last night he made a reference to a pulled muscle.

Big Papi looked a little rusty against Chicago's hard-throwing righty, Javier Vazquez. (Speaking of hurlers named Javier, when do we get Javier Lopez pitching to Javy Lopez?)

Ortiz walked to the plate with two out and nobody aboard in the bottom of the first and received the expected standing ovation. He stepped out, tipped his helmet, went back to work and drew a walk on a 3-and-2 pitch. In the third, he fouled to the catcher with two on and two out. He struck out with two out and nobody on in the fifth, a feeble check swing. He got one more shot in the eighth and struck out again, this time swinging mightily and missing a 93-mile-per-hour fastball.

``I was thrilled," Francona said when asked about seeing Ortiz back in the lineup. ``Sometimes I thought some fastballs got by him that don't normally get by him, but that'll change."

Big Papi is back. The kid closer doesn't have a tear. Some of the young pitchers look pretty good, the lineup is again intact, and the staggering Red Sox showed some pride and won four out of six.

But playoffs?

Please. Get a grip.

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

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