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Time heals -- but very slowly

Injured pair not up to speed

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- More than eight weeks after they placed Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon on the 15-day disabled list, the Red Sox last night remained uncertain when either player will join the team. Nor was there any indication when they would be healthy enough to begin a minor league rehab assignment.

The length of the absences has stunned everyone involved because the injuries initially were considered relatively minor. Nixon felt some discomfort in his lower back while driving to spring training from his home in North Carolina, and Garciaparra's right Achilles' tendinitis seemed so mild that at first he tried to play through it.

"At the very beginning, we thought it was three or four days," manager Terry Francona said of Garciaparra's injury. "I don't think anybody [thought it would be this long]. Nomar didn't, I didn't, and the medical people didn't."

While Garciaparra has improved at a snail's pace, Nixon needed weeks to heal his mildly herniated disk. Then he suffered a second setback, straining his left quadriceps. Just when he could see the light at the end of the tunnel, Nixon said, "The light kind of closed up quick."

Garciaparra continues to make incremental progress.

"The stiffness is leaving quicker," Francona said. "It's bouncing back better."

While Garciaparra continues to work out at Fenway Park, Francona said he does not believe the All-Star shortstop has yet "gone at full bore," a prerequisite for advancing in his rehab program. Garciaparra not only will need to test his heel at maximum force but do so successfully on consecutive days before he advances.

The Sox have yet to consider when or where Garciaparra would begin a rehab program, according to Francona.

"When we get there, we'll map out what's in his best interests," the manager said. "We want to bring him back healthy, whenever that is. We've waited this long. To have him come back and hobble wouldn't be good."

Nixon, who as a precaution wore a back brace while driving two hours to Tampa from Fort Myers to work out with the team, said he has made some encouraging progress the last couple of days but remains engaged "in a real slow process." He could not estimate when he would begin a rehab assignment.

"I'm just waiting for my quad to heal," he said. "I'd love it to be a lot quicker than 10 days, but I have to just wait and see how it responds."

Nixon, who gained about 20 pounds after the 2002 season to try to boost his power, has lost most of the weight to reduce the stress on his back. He suggested the weight loss may cost him some power but should improve his mobility.

"I've kind of battled with the fact that I wanted to get bigger and stronger," he said, "but I think when I did that I kind of lost some agility or quickness. I might not have the same power, but I can always put on strength and keep my weight down."

Nixon was scheduled to continue serving as a designated hitter in extended spring training in Fort Myers until he heals.

Rookie stays up

Convincing Francona that he was well enough to play, Bill Mueller returned from a three-game absence because of inflammation in his right knee and promptly delivered a run-scoring single in the second inning. The single, which knocked in Manny Ramirez from second base, improved Mueller's average with runners in scoring position to .200 (8 for 40).

The Sox plan to carefully monitor Mueller's condition since they have another third baseman, Kevin Youkilis, poised for action. Youkilis went 4 for 8 over the weekend in Toronto in his first games in the majors, homering Saturday in his second at-bat in the bigs.

If Mueller shows he is well enough to play regularly, the Sox most likely will return Youkilis to Pawtucket, preferring he play regularly at Triple A rather than languish on the bench in Boston. For now, though, Youkilis is staying.

"There's no sense even talking about it," Francona said, "until we're sure Billy's fine."

Youkilis yearns to stick with the Sox. "I'd love to be up here, even if it's sitting on the bench and pinch hitting or playing every three or four days," he said. "I'm happy with that, but I understand the other reasoning."

Youkilis hopes to make his Fenway debut Friday when the Sox return home.

"That's the second part of my dream," he said. "The first part was hitting the home run."

Damon rattled

Johnny Damon left last night's game after the seventh inning, when shortstop Julio Lugo ran into him chasing a ball and snapped his head back. Francona said Damon "was kind of dazed," and the Sox were concerned about the concussion Damon suffered last year in the Division Series. "The first thing I thought when he hit me was, `Son of a gun, what was this, my neck cracking 10 times?' " Damon said. "It could have been my first whiplash. Anytime something happens around my head, the team and I are going to take extra precaution." Damon said he would play tonight . . . Tim Wakefield recorded his 105th win with the Sox, tying him with Pedro Martinez and Lefty Grove for eighth place on the team's all-time list. He also pitched his 1,707th inning, tying Bob Stanley for fifth in team history . . . Ramirez (3 for 4 with a walk) reached safely in his 16th straight game. Ramirez (sore groin) was the DH for a second straight game, as Kevin Millar played left . . . Mark Bellhorn's homer was Boston's 72d at Tropicana Field, the most by any opponent since Tampa Bay joined the league in 1998 . . . The Sox doubled for a 15th straight game. They also improved to 20-0 when leading after the eighth and to 8-4 against lefthanded starters.


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