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Garciaparra is back here after two steps forward

Page full of 2 -- LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- "Believe me," Nomar Garciaparra said yesterday, "I'd rather be going to Anaheim to see my wife and my family."

But the usual Nomar cheering section from Bellflower, Calif. (where Garciaparra went to high school), and surrounding environs will have to make do without their favorite son the next two nights, when the Sox play the Angels. Just two days into his rehabilitation assignment with Triple A Pawtucket, it was never more than wishful thinking that Garciaparra would be back with the big club for the short West Coast swing, even if he did single on each of the first two pitches he saw here yesterday at Louisville Slugger Field.

Instead, Garciaparra was headed back to Boston last night to be reevaluated by team doctors, with tentative plans to rejoin the PawSox in time for their game Thursday night in Toledo, Ohio, against the Mud Hens.

"It felt good, it felt all right," said Garciaparra, who led off the sixth inning by fouling out to catcher Corky Miller in his only at-bat against a righthander, Scott Randall. That came after two hits and a walk against lefty starter Jung Keun Bong, then Garciaparra called it a day.

When he awoke yesterday morning after playing for the first time Sunday night, Garciaparra felt some "stiffness and achiness" in the inflamed right Achilles' tendon that sidelined him through the season's first two months. "But that's what I expected," he said, adding that it felt no worse than it has in recent days, an encouraging sign given his increased activity. "I was glad to be able to go back out there."

Garciaparra was on the field for about 85 pitches yesterday, an increase from 70 or so the night before, Pawtucket manager Buddy Bailey said.

"I'd be surprised if we don't see him Thursday," Bailey said. "He was moving good for me. He ran good down the line. If he were 100 percent, he probably could have gone first to third.

"But he swung the bat, and his timing is getting closer and closer, as you can tell."

Garciaparra lined a fastball from Bong to right field to open the game, then lined a changeup to center field in the third for his second single.

"I took a lot of pitches," he deadpanned. "Typical for me. But I stayed on the fastball and went with it to right, and stayed on the changeup and hit it up the middle."

Bong walked him to load the bases in the fourth, but not before Garciaparra fouled a pitch off his foot and went down to one knee. He instantly sprang to his feet, alleviating any concern Bailey might have had. He fouled the ball off his left foot, not the notorious right one.

"I'm trying to even out the pain," he said.

Garciaparra will have at least two days off before returning to Toledo. He indicated that he expected to play at least the first three games (of a four-game series) in Toledo. Sitting out Sunday would give him two days off before the Sox return home to play the San Diego Padres next Tuesday night, which is appearing more and more like a target date for Garciaparra's 2004 debut in a Boston uniform. That depends, of course, on whether he suffers the proverbial setback in the interim.

Garciaparra handled just two chances in the field yesterday, a grounder hit directly at him in the third, and a popup in the fifth. But Bailey was satisfied watching the way Garciaparra reacted to each pitch, instinctively breaking in the direction he thought the ball might be hit.

"Even that involves some pushing off," Bailey said.

"This was the major hurdle, to get through these first two days."

Garciaparra was at his gracious best here the last two days, signing dozens of autographs and providing an extra treat to the 1,700 fresh Army recruits from nearby Fort Knox, including that rarest of creatures, a turncoat Yankee fan.

"Yeah, I was a Yankee fan," said Mike Stephens of the 515th Cavalry Unit, "but I turned over to the Red Sox. I spent the last three years living in Boston, selling cars at Mirak Automotive in Arlington.

"I didn't know Nomar was going to be here. That was great."

What could be more All-American on Memorial Day: Garciaparra, a 103-year-old veteran of World War I, Robly Rex, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, and lots of uniforms in a packed house on a sunny day, the day after tornado warnings kept the PawSox trapped in their clubhouse until long after midnight.

"That's the first time I've ever had a game played between two tornados," said Louisville general manager Dale Owens.

Garciaparra had his own reasons for wishing that the PawSox had gone first to Toledo, then Louisville. His wife, Mia Hamm, will be here with the US women's soccer team for a game Sunday against Japan.

"Couldn't they have flip-flopped?" he said. 

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