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Dan Shaughnessy

Rise and shine for Ramírez in his return

Here's a little good news to sprinkle over your morning corn flakes:

Manny's back.

And here's another news flash for you all:

Manny can still hit.

The cliché about the guy who can fall out of bed and resume hitting as if he's in midseason form? That would be Manny Ramírez, No. 24 in your program, savant slugger of the Boston Red Sox since 2001.

Manny could rip IV tubes out of his arm, vault out of the ICU, and crack a single up the middle on the first pitch he's seen in six months. Manny could stand alongside a 4-foot snowbank in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb. 10 and hit the first 90-mile-per-hour fastball thrown his way. He could skip part of spring training (and has), then show up rested and ready to go 4 for 4 against C.C. Sabathia.

Fall out of bed and hit? Manny should be doing commercials for Barry and Eliot.

Manny came to the plate last night for the first time since Aug. 28 (his hair looked a couple of inches longer) and ripped a single to right on a 1-and-2 pitch. When he came around to score on a double by Mike Lowell, all was well in the Red Sox' universe. A few hours later, things looked even better as the Sox reduced the magic number to 3 with a 7-3 win over the A's while the Yankees were losing in Tampa.

Getting Manny back was the best news of the night.

"He came through fine," said manager Terry Francona. "That's good news for us."

"You can't replace Manny," added Julio Lugo, who enjoyed a family moment when he faced his brother, Ruddy, and walked in the eighth.

Manny was last seen in the sixth inning of a game against the Yankees in the Bronx Aug. 28. He came out with a strained left oblique, and for a while, it seemed he was never coming back. There was patience with the vague nature of Manny's condition during his first couple of weeks on the shelf, but as the games started to pile up, a few fans became restless.

Francona found himself answering Manny questions twice a day, and cynics wondered whether this might be a repeat of 2006 when Manny shut it down for no apparent reason (patella tendinitis was the official excuse, but even the most loyal Mannyites were skeptical by the end of the season).

"I could tell he was hurting," said David Ortiz. "His swing, he was pushing the ball, he wasn't going through it like he normally does."

The Sox went 12-12 with Manny out of the lineup. Ortiz stopped seeing quality pitches and we missed a lot of goofy plays that could have been made in left field.

With the playoffs starting one week from today (or tomorrow), Manny gave his manager the thumbs-up early yesterday. Francona responded by putting Manny into the lineup, in the No. 2 spot in the batting order. Manny is not your prototypical No. 2 hitter, but Tito said he wanted to get his slugger two or three at-bats, then sit him back down. Hence, the 2-spot. A $20 million slap hitter.

"I told him he wasn't going to fool anybody unless he changes his name and cut the dreadlocks off," said Ortiz.

Hitting against Oakland righty Chad Gaudin, Manny smoked the single to right in the first ("Didn't surprise me at all" - Francona), popped to second in the second, and took his final cuts leading off the fifth. He fell behind, 0-and-2, took three balls, fouled off a 3-and-2 pitch, then walked on a 92-mile-per-hour fastball. That was it for the night. Brandon Moss came on to pinch run.

Manny's position in the batting order and his early exit gave the proceedings a distinct Fort Myers flair (why not just bat Ortiz leadoff so he can see a few more pitches?) and delivered a clear message to those who want the Sox to play full speed this week.

"We want to come through with health and win as many games as we can," said Francona.

It now looks fairly certain that the Sox will finish ahead of the Yankees, and it will be nice to be able to dictate the starting date of their first-round series. Still, they are not going to do anything to impede the long-term goal. Which is why Curt Schilling was pulled after throwing six innings of one-run ball against the A's. The big lug (he certainly looks playoff-ready) threw only 86 pitches.

The good news is that the Sox were able to win anyway. And it looks like Manny is ready to contribute.

Time for Barry and Eliot to make the call. Can't you just see a sleepy-eyed Manny rolling off a Posturepedic, bouncing up off the carpet - bat in hand - and lining a single up the middle?

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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