-- Nomar Garciaparra isn't a numbers guy. He doesn't want to know his average, scoffs when others mention he's on a lengthy hitting streak and shrugs off any other information related to his statistics.

All Garciaparra has really concerned himself with is bringing a World Series title to Boston for the first time in 86 years.

He may only have 100 games in which to do it.

Garciaparra, who will be a free agent after the season, played in his first game -- his team's 58th -- Wednesday, returning to the lineup after 21/2 months on the disabled list. Although he was welcomed back by fans, he continues to be a lightning rod for controversy. During the offseason, he was surprised to find he was the subject of trade talks. Then, he hurt his right Achilles' when he was hit by a ball early in spring training and went on the disabled list.

A five-time all-star shortstop, he returned amid published reports that he was malingering as a form of payback for how he was treated over the winter -- when he seemed destined for the Chicago White Sox in return for Magglio Ordonez as part of a three-team deal that was slated to bring Alex Rodriguez to Boston.

"If I was taking my time, I'd see you in August," Garciaparra said in response to those who suggested he was milking the injury. "I won't be a hundred percent. I never said I'd be a hundred percent. I'm well enough to play and I want to be out there. I wish I could say I'm a hundred percent, but I'd be kidding myself."

Garciaparra has long been Boston's favored son -- just a notch below the level of legends Larry Bird and Bobby Orr. A two-time batting champion and career .323 hitter, he got his first taste of significant criticism down the stretch last year after batting .170 in September and managing just one RBI in 12 postseason games against Oakland and the New York Yankees.

Then came the rumors of the A-Rod deal, which caught everyone -- especially Garciaparra -- off guard.

"It really hit home when he found out the deal was on the table," said Cleveland Indians first baseman Lou Merloni, a close friend of Garciaparra's since their days as minor leaguers. "They were trying to exhaust everything to get rid of him or get A-Rod, however you want to look at it. He didn't understand why they didn't want him after everything he'd done for the organization. He basically resigned himself to the fact that his career in Boston was over."

But the deal fell through. Rodriguez later went to the New York Yankees, and Garciaparra, in the last year of his contract, was headed to spring training with the Red Sox. Preparing for the season helped Garciaparra put the turmoil behind him. Then he was injured -- with an original prognosis for him to miss about a month.

Instead, he was out for more than one-third of the season and did the majority of his rehabilitation away from the team. The Red Sox hardly missed a beat without Garciaparra, going 34-23 before he returned.

"We've done a good job despite not having Nomar in the lineup and all the other injuries we've had," General Manager Theo Epstein said. "I don't think we could ask for more than that, but it doesn't happen automatically. When you get healthy, you don't automatically get better. There's still a lot of season left."

To be exact, 100 games remain. Then Garciaparra will join Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe as free agents ready and willing to test the market.

"We're going to pick up the talks with Nomar after the season is over," Epstein said. "I think he wants to be here and we want him here. The only thing we disagreed about in the past is the business side -- years and dollars. That's what we need to work on."

"The Red Sox have the right to play the year out and evaluate it and unfortunately, if they let it get that far, Nomar also has the right to go out and see what else is out there," Merloni said. "It's rolling the dice. I think if the Red Sox really want him back, he'll be back. He wants to finish his career in Boston, but if they come in with a low-ball offer, that'll be a sign they don't really want him. He'll be able to tell and it'll probably come down to that."

Fans appear to want Garciaparra back. They greeted him with a 36-second standing ovation when he made his 2004 debut against San Diego on Wednesday. He was the same old "Nomah," fidgeting with his batting gloves and swinging at the first pitch before singling to left field in his first at-bat. Then he had a key two-run double the following night in a victory against the Padres.

"It was great to be out there again. The adrenaline was pumping," Garciaparra said. "The fans were unbelievable. The ovation they gave me was incredible. They welcomed me back the first time I came back, and they welcomed me back again. I deeply appreciate it."

Garciaparra, batting fifth instead of in his customary third spot, is 2 for 11 with a pair of RBI in four games since coming back. David Ortiz, who leads the league in RBI with 54, will remain third and Manny Ramirez, who has a league-leading 17 home runs, will continue to bat cleanup.

"The lineup got a little thicker with Nomar," Manager Terry Francona said. "The pitcher can't take a deep breath."

Nor can anyone else in Boston. With the uncertainty over which of the Big Four will continue to call Fenway Park home and the key additions of Curt Schilling to the rotation and Keith Foulke as the closer, this could be the best chance Boston has had in a long time.

"We believe it's the year every year," Garciaparra said. "We believed it last year and that's what we play for. We don't play just to get by or to have a good year. We play to win the World Series. I've been on teams where we should have won the World Series and this year's no different."

Shortstop Nomar Garciaparra missed the Red Sox' first 57 games after being injured in spring training.Nomar Garciaparra: "I'm well enough to play and I want to be out there. I wish I could say I'm a hundred percent, but I'd be kidding myself."