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Merloni returns to fold

Red Sox reacquire utility infielder

Nomar Garciaparra was taken aback. Doug Mirabelli, too.

Five months after the Padres claimed Lou Merloni off waivers from the Red Sox, the pride of Framingham yesterday phoned his old pals to tell them he was coming home. The Sox, seeking to bolster their infield depth for the playoff drive, reacquired Merloni from San Diego for Double A righthander Rene Miniel.

"They didn't believe me at first," Merloni said, "but I told them I'll be there [today]."

That would be no small feat since Merloni needed to fly from Houston to San Diego to gather his belongings and make arrangements to ship home his car before he boarded a red-eye for Boston. He said he was excited about parachuting into a playoff race, even if he seemed a bit uncertain about his short-term role and his long-term prospects with the Sox.

General manager Theo Epstein, who competed with the Yankees for Merloni's services in the final hours before the trade, said Merloni could spell the Sox infielders and provide another righthanded bat without compromising Damian Jackson's role. Jackson had appeared poised to edge Merloni for the utility role out of spring training before the Sox cleared the way for Merloni to join the Padres.

"He does fill a void on this team," Epstein said. "He will provide us with another capable righthanded bat and give our club infield depth down the stretch."

Merloni, 32, hit .272 with one homer (off Randy Johnson) and 17 RBIs in 65 games for the Padres. He was sidelined several weeks with a knee injury.

"To come out here and be right in the pennant race with the Yankees coming in and get thrown in the fire, I'm real excited about that," Merloni said. "It's something I've been through and I'm looking forward to that again."

To make room for Merloni on the 40-man roster, the Sox transferred righthander Robert Person from the 15-day disabled list to the 60-day list, officially ending his season. Epstein said he expected to make another move today to clear space on the 25-man roster. One possibility is Todd Jones, who took a line drive off his right arm Tuesday, landing on the disabled list. Otherwise, David McCarty or Gabe Kapler could be at risk.

Miniel, 24, who was ranked as Boston's fifth best righthanded prospect by Baseball America entering the season, went a combined 3-5 with a 3.09 ERA in 34 games, including seven starts, for Single A Sarasota and Double A Portland. Miniel was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 1998. The Sox believed he was 16 at the time but learned last year he actually was two years older.

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