FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Hoping for a miracle, the Red Sox instead yesterday ran into a major misfortune as they lost Nomar Garciaparra most likely until May with a vexing case of Achilles' tendinitis. The All-Star shortstop received the disconcerting news less than 48 hours after he declined to rule out returning for the season opener Sunday in Baltimore.
"It's going to be horrible," Garciaparra said as he prepared to return to Boston for three weeks of rest and rehabilitation before the Sox consider clearing him for baseball activity. "It's going to drive me crazy."
Nothing good is expected to come of it for the Sox either. With Trot Nixon already sidelined through April and Byung Hyun Kim likely to miss most of the month as well, Garciaparra's surprise setback all but blindsided his teammates on the eve of their breaking camp for the final two exhibition games in Atlanta.
Even if Garciaparra's injury has healed in three weeks, he will need time to refine his baseball skills and prepare for major league competition. He would go on a minor league rehab assignment before he rejoined the Sox.
"It's a shock," Johnny Damon said. "We thought he might play the last couple of [exhibition] games. I guess nobody really knew the severity of [the injury]. This is not a good way to start the season. Losing Nomar, that's huge."
General manager Theo Epstein announced the setback after Garciaparra was examined at City of Palms Park by team physican Bill Morgan and Dr. Mark Slovenkai, a foot and ankle specialist at New England Baptist Hospital. Though the diagnosis remained the same, the prognosis grew unsettlingly worse.
"It will be three weeks without playing in games, for sure," Epstein said. "It's similar to Trot's situation. The whole point of an aggressive rest and rehab routine like this is to knock the injury out. It's a long season. It's a long career. We want to make sure we put this behind us so it doesn't become more chronic."
The Sox will try to compensate for the loss by shifting second baseman Pokey Reese to shortstop (with utilityman Mark Bellhorn replacing Reese at second) and David Ortiz assuming Garciaparra's cleanup role. But there's no replacing a five-time All-Star, two-time batting champion, and .323 career hitter.
"I'm disappointed for us and for him," manager Terry Francona said. "He's such a competitive kid that it's killing him. The hope is that we have a very good team surrounding him and we don't let it affect our wins and losses. He's a very good player, though, and he's right in the middle of our lineup. To say we wouldn't miss him would be lying."
Garciaparra had tried to play through the trauma after he was struck on the right Achilles' by a ball during batting practice March 5 before a game at City of Palms Park against Northeastern University. He abandoned the effort after he experienced persistent discomfort, then embarked on a more limited regimen of hitting and fielding, hoping to return as soon as Sunday. But that, too, proved too painful.
"There's definitely pain back there in my tendon when I'm pushing off," Garciaparra said. "The more I do, it progressively gets worse. The biggest problem is when I try to run."
In addition to overseeing a scaled-back workout program, Morgan tried different medication to ease the inflammation in Garciaparra's tendon.
"It wasn't responding as quickly as we would have liked it to respond," Morgan said. "We're just taking it a little bit slower and having a very structured rehab program, and we'll see how things go over the next three weeks."
The possibility of Garciaparra needing surgery seemed remote since Morgan said an MRI showed no structural damage to the tendon. The shortstop underwent surgery three years ago for a split tendon in his right wrist and played only 21 games that year. But the problem with his Achilles' has been limited to inflammation, which has not subtantially subsided over nearly four weeks.
"Sometimes you get freak things that can cause some inflammation in there," Garciaparra said. "You think one way, you go out there and you work through it not knowing that it might be more harm than good. Now you're at the point where it's like, `Hey, we've got to take care of this and make sure it alleviates itself.' "
Both Morgan and Garciaparra said the shortstop's hitting and fielding practice in recent weeks did not aggravate the injury, despite the pressure placed on the tendon in fielding grounders and swinging a bat.
"When the specialist came in, he said, `Wow, everything you guys have been doing has been actually better than probably what I expected,' " Garciaparra said. "Everything I've done has been right and has not hindered me one bit."
Morgan and Slovenkai prescribed rest for at least a week before Garciaparra is reevaluated to determine whether he is ready for a restricted exercise program, which would include some therapy in a pool. He will be examined weekly, Morgan said, "then hopefully get in some baseball activity after that three-week period of time, depending on how his symptoms are at that point."
Garciaparra said he was resigned to losing a chunk of the season, as frustrating as he expects it to be.
"The doctor ordered a lot of rest and sitting on my couch," Garciaparra said. "He says he'll talk to me once a week. I'm sure it'll be more to make sure I am sitting on my couch, which I will be. It'll definitely be hard, but I'll be cheering them on."