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Nixon eager to start on the right track

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The distance between Trot Nixon's North Carolina home and here is about 800 miles. Nixon has made the drive many times, starting in 1994, when the Red Sox outfielder attended his first big league spring training. But last year, somewhere along the highways that lead through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, Nixon felt a twinge develop in his back, then shoot down his hamstring.

"Poor posture," he thought.

Once he reached City of Palms Park, he knew it was much more.

"I came to hit and work out," Nixon said, "and I told [trainer] Chris Correnti that there was a problem."

The problem, a slight disk herniation, sidelined Nixon for the season opener. He then strained his left quadriceps attempting to rush back into the lineup. At long last he debuted -- and homered -- on June 16. But by July 25, he was again bothered by his quad, and he was on the shelf until Sept. 7.

"It was difficult to deal with," said Nixon, who was limited to 48 regular-season games. "It feels like you're locked down. I didn't think my leg would ever get better."

This spring, Nixon made the drive to Florida without incident, accompanied by his wife, Kathryn, and his two boys, 3-year-old Chase and 4-month-old Luke. He arrived Feb. 1, though position players aren't scheduled to report until next Monday.

He's here to continue his offseason regimen: healthier eating -- no late-night snacks and soft drinks -- and an attention to agility. For the month of January, Nixon worked out 3-5 hours per day four times a week, conditioning his upper body with a kickboxing instructor (though he didn't box) and his lower body with a friend who operates a hip facility.

"I'm 30," said Nixon. "When you turn 30, all of a sudden from your toenails to your earlobes things start to hurt. I changed my way of going about it. I had never done anaerobic stuff where you go hard for a minute and a half, get a 10-second break, then go hard.

"The leg responded. When I do strength exercises, the whole offseason, no problem at all. Same with my back."

In the process, he said, he dropped 14 pounds, from 232 to 218.

"Hopefully," Nixon said, "I have put myself in a position to be healthy for the upcoming season."

That's a tantalizing thought for a Sox team that led the American League in runs despite missing Nixon's bat for 114 games. Glimpses of him were few last year, but the last one -- in Game 4 of the World Series -- left an impression. Nixon hit three doubles, none bigger than his two-run, third-inning shot off Cardinals starter Jason Marquis on a 3-and-0 count.

To this day, Nixon can't believe manager Terry Francona allowed him to swing. In his Red Sox career, Nixon said, he can count the number of times he's swung 3-and-0 on one hand.

"I just don't do it," he said. "I've never been that hitter who felt confident enough to hit 3-and-0."

When third base coach Dale Sveum gave Nixon the green light, Nixon scrunched his eyes in disbelief. He then looked to the dugout, to double-check with Francona.

"I couldn't make eye contact with Tito," Nixon said. "Off we go. He threw it right down the middle."

With that swing, he increased a 1-0 lead to 3-0.

"To have him healthy from Day 1 is going to be a big bonus," Francona said. "All of a sudden, you have [Jason] Varitek, [Kevin] Millar, Trot, [Edgar] Renteria, those guys who can hit fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth. It's a nice combination of hitters."

Of Nixon's 149 at-bats last season, 126 came batting fifth or sixth in the order. He also had at least one at-bat in each spot in the lineup. That kind of flexibility excites Francona, as does the idea of stability in right field, where the Sox used eight players in 2004.

"Although a number of guys, most notably Gabe Kapler, played well, our right field production was way below the average compared to the league," said general manager Theo Epstein. Those eight right fielders, Nixon included, combined to hit .306 with 17 home runs and 81 RBIs. Nixon, in his previous three seasons (2001-03), averaged 26 home runs and 90 RBIs by himself.

"Trot is one of the best productive right fielders in the game," Epstein said. "He really dominates righthanded pitching when he's on."

Nixon is a .293 career hitter vs. righties, compared with just .213 vs. lefties. Of his 112 home runs, 103 have come against righthanded pitchers. And of his 404 RBIs, 357 have come against righties.

The only way to improve against lefties, said Nixon, would be "getting the opportunity to play."

But, under the sabermetric regime of Epstein and Francona, matchups rule.

"It's easy for me to sit there and say, `What about me?' " Nixon said. "I don't want other teams, this team especially, to think I don't want to play against lefties, that I don't feel good against lefties.

"If I were a manager I don't care what your numbers say, if you're the right guy and we have confidence in you, we'll put you out there. I don't think it's that our front office doesn't have confidence in me. I just think they don't want to do it."

Nixon figures he won't start on Opening Day this year, either, but not because of injury. The Sox will be up against the Yankees' imposing lefthander, Randy Johnson. If that's Francona's decision, Nixon will live with it, thankful at least that he's sitting by choice, not because he's ailing.

"My biggest thing is, I missed so much of last year, I want to be healthy," he said. "I want to have more good years. I want to be a consistent .300 hitter. I want to be a consistent 20- to 30-home run guy. I want to be someone who is very solid, anywhere in the lineup."

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