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With Japan behind him, thrill is back

His debut two summers ago in a Red Sox uniform was among the most memorable in team history. Seven hits in two days, including two home runs, two doubles, a triple, and seven RBIs, and by the end of that weekend standing ovations every time he stuck his head outside the dugout.

''Just to hear those words," Gabe Kapler said yesterday, ''I get chills. I have many times thought about my first at-bat when I come back, the first time a fly ball comes out there, the first time I score, the first time I get to hit Trot Nixon as hard as I can when he runs out to right field like I always did, giving him a good swat as he runs out there."

He is sweating in Florida with the lowest of the lowest Sox rookies, but Kapler, speaking by telephone from a steakhouse in Fort Myers yesterday afternoon, said he couldn't be happier to be back with the Sox after a miserable experience in Japan.

''You really have no idea," Kapler said. ''You can't even imagine how good it feels and how much I'm smiling. I got on the field yesterday and today, I'm healthy, my body feels great and it's nice to play baseball again. I'm back on American soil, and I know great things are going to happen, which puts me in a great frame of mind."

Re-signed by the Sox on Friday after he cleared waivers in Japan, where he had been on the inactive list for a month after hitting just .153 for the Yomiuri Giants, Kapler was immediately placed on the disabled list by the Sox, but that essentially was a formality while he works his way back into playing shape at the team's training facility.

''I'm ready to roll," he said. ''I did have a strain in my lower back, but it's at a point now where I can play baseball. I need at-bats. I hit in the cage [Saturday] and [yesterday], I'm scheduled to have live batting practice [today], and I'll get some at-bats pretty soon. I can throw, hit, and run."

But can he close? Kapler, who will be eligible to join the Sox July 30, when the team will be home against the Minnesota Twins, said he is confident that the Sox already have their closer.

''Schill can do it," Kapler said of Curt Schilling. ''He'll be fine. Schill will be great. My take on it is you bet on the heart of the player. You're better off doing that than betting just on stuff. Last year when he got hurt and we needed it most, he didn't have everything, but he did it. He had something much larger than just a fastball. Schill is one of the greatest competitors I've ever met."

Days after the World Series, Kapler became the first Sox player to leave the team, signing a one-year deal for $2 million, plus a signing bonus of $700,000 that nearly matched his $750,000 Sox salary. He left, he said, for a chance to play every day, to establish his bona fides as a regular instead of as a backup. He had a nice spring training, hitting over .300 with three home runs, but once the season started he went into a slump and never came out of it.

Kapler didn't want to discuss his Japanese experience in depth, saying the matter was still sensitive to his former employers, who had counted on Kapler to be their star gaijin (foreigner). But in an interview in May, he said he experienced little of the adrenaline rush that is so integral to performing at the highest levels.

''I have to take responsibility," he said. ''I got off to a really bad start, and it's very difficult to climb out of that kind of hole. But first and foremost, it was my responsibility."

The Giants could have released Kapler long ago, but instead kept him in baseball purgatory for weeks by placing him on the inactive list. It got to the point, according to reports in Japan, that Kapler stopped coming to the ballpark, though he refused to confirm or deny that yesterday, referring questions to his agent, Paul Cohen. Cohen did not respond to telephone messages last night.

Sox manager Terry Francona, who was on the receiving end of a staged tirade by Jay Payton -- who had been acquired in an offseason trade to fill the Kapler role -- to facilitate his departure from the team, has called Kapler the ''ultimate teammate." Kapler had numerous phone calls and e-mails from his Sox teammates welcoming him back, including one from Francona.

''I got a really wonderful message from Tito," he said. ''He said he was really glad to hear I was back, a really heartfelt message. To have a manager with that type of confidence in me means everything. It drives you to perform well. Obviously I'm as big a fan, if not bigger, of Tito."

What does Kapler expect to find upon his return?

''A nice reunion when I get back," he said. ''I miss the guys a lot. From what I've heard recently, everybody is in a really good place. The guys feel good about the way things are going. Most of the recent comments I get is that it feels like nothing has changed, which is really, really encouraging.

''It sounds like the guys are in good moods. It sounds like there's urgency, but no panic."

Kapler planned to watch last night's game against the Yankees on TV, so presumably he saw the Sox lose for the third time in four meetings. They're still in first place, but only by a half-game over the Bombers, and a game over the Orioles. He might need to be the cavalry, but his return will be welcome. Now, if he can only duplicate his debut.

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