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Dan Shaughnessy

Suddenly, Manny is in the moment

Seven seasons have been played since Dan Duquette announced he was bringing the modern-day Jimmie Foxx to Boston. In that span, Manny Ramírez has hit 254 regular-season home runs for the Red Sox, been named World Series MVP, and quietly carved an image of a lovable, goofy, and thoroughly unpredictable superstar.

Manny has turned Fenway Park into his own Classroom Without Walls, sometimes infuriating his bosses and teammates, but he has always felt the love of the Nation. And now when the Red Sox need him most, Manny seems to be paying attention - which is bad news for the Cleveland Indians, the franchise that brought him to the big leagues in 1993.

Along with countryman David Ortiz, Ramírez wrecked the Anemic Angels of Anaheim in the first round of the playoffs. Manny hit .375 with two homers, four RBIs, five walks, and an on-base percentage of .615 in the three-game sweep. He won Game 2 at Fenway with an after-midnight walkoff that may not yet have landed, then crushed a ball into the Magic Kingdom in Game 3. He punctuated both blasts with home plate preening worthy of Mick Jagger.

After launching the Back Bay missile, Manny submitted to a full-blown postgame interview session, his first sitdown with the Fourth Estate since spring training 2006. It was a rare window into Mannyworld.

"I haven't been right all year round," he admitted. "But I guess, you know, when you don't feel good and you still get hits, that's when you know you are a bad man . . . Just my timing all year round hasn't been right."

Manny hit .296 with 20 homers and 88 RBIs in 133 games in 2007. Good numbers, but not Mannyesque.

"I think this whole year he was a little uncomfortable and never could find his swing," teammate Kevin Youkilis said before today's workout at Fenway.

"Manny hasn't been locked in all year, but pitchers still aren't thrilled about facing him," added manager Terry Francona.

Ramírez missed 24 games in August and September because of a strained oblique muscle, and the Sox went 12-12 during his absence. Toward the end of his long stay on the shelf, there was some suspicion about his desire to return. We'd seen it before, as recently as 2006, when Ramírez curiously closed shop in the final month. The official injury was patellar tendinitis, but not many were buying as the season imploded.

Manny returned this year on Sept. 25 and in his first at-bat lined a single to right field after not seeing live pitching for a month. The next night, he went 3 for 3. Now he's scalding the ball, running the bases with authority (he told Peter Gammons he studied scouting reports on Angels outfielders before the American League Division Series), and appears somewhat engaged in the outfield.

"Maybe because he missed time, maybe because it's the playoffs, he looks like he's almost dialed in," said Francona.

Manny's home run last Sunday was his 22d postseason blast, tying him with Bernie Williams for the big league record. Ramírez is a .303 hitter with eight homers in five ALCS since 1995.

"I know his presence in the batting order is huge," said Francona. "We found ways when he was gone to win games, but having his presence in the batting order is very big.

"I really think as far as consistency, whether you say engaged or on the base paths, I think this has been his most consistent year. Maybe not his most productive year, but his most consistent as far as effort on the bases, in the outfield, things like that. We're really thrilled about that. The oblique happened. That happens. When it happens to Manny, it's big news. That will always be the case."

Manny talked to the media again after the Sox clinched in California, and I thought maybe he'd take some questions before the workout today. So I hung around his locker.

A few minutes before the clubhouse was closed to the media, Manny strolled toward his stall, holding a bat.

"Manny, how about a couple of words?" I asked.

"No, thanks," he said politely.

My mistake. I asked for a couple of words and he gave me exactly that. It reminded me of the old Calvin Coolidge story about the young woman who approached the quiet president and told him she had bet her friends she could get him to say at least three words.

Coolidge's response was, "You lose."

Just Calvin being Calvin, I guess.

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

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