IS A KNOCKOUT PUNCH ENOUGH?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There is something menacing about the Boston Red Sox, though no one quite knows what to make of their chances in the tough American League East.

Maybe it's the way Jose Canseco swaggers around the clubhouse, instilling that black-and-blue Bash Brothers mentality wherever he goes. Maybe it's the way he and Mo Vaughn sit side by side at their lockers, looking every bit as dangerous as the Canseco/Mark McGwire tag team that once dominated the AL West.

Maybe, just maybe, the Red Sox are about to explode. They acquired Canseco from the Texas Rangers for Otis Nixon and Luis Ortiz in December. They picked up outfielder Mark Whiten -- the guy who had four home runs and 12 RBIs in a game in 1993 -- from the St. Louis Cardinals. They already had Vaughn and Mike Greenwell.

Talk about getting to the heart of the matter . . . or the batting order. The Green Monster is going to have polka dots after this season.

"We definitely strengthened ourselves," Vaughn said. "Every one of those four guys can do it with one swing of the bat. We have a solid one through nine. Speed at the top, speed at the bottom and guys who can drive the ball."

It all revolves around Canseco, who bounced back from elbow surgery last year to re-establish himself as one of the most intimidating hitters in the game. Now, he becomes the latest right-handed power hitter to challenge the fabled left-field wall, and the Red Sox are betting that the results will be nothing short of Ruthian.

"He's basically a high fly-ball hitter, and there were a lot of balls he hit in Texas that would have gone out in Fenway," said Red Sox manager Kevin Kennedy, who managed Canseco last year with the Rangers. "It was tough in Arlington. He hit more home runs to left-center and right-center than to left. He knew the conditions there and adjusted. That shows what kind of hitter he is. I think he would have finished with 45 homers last year [he was held to 31 by the baseball strike]. Who knows what he can do in Boston?"

He just might poke a hole in the Citgo sign that hovers over left field. Most hitters insist that the Green Monster must be ignored to be conquered -- that it is dangerous to alter your batting mechanics to try to take advantage of it. Canseco, who is more a student of hitting than he'll ever get credit for, plans to take the opposite approach. He is going to do everything he can to pull the ball.

"I'll tell you one thing," Kennedy said, "they're going to have to pitch to him."

Vaughn and Whiten will be right behind. The three of them could hit 120 home runs . . . more if the season had not been shortened by nearly three weeks. But will that be enough to end the Curse of the Bambino? Can the Red Sox bash their way to their first world championship since the last year (1918) that Babe Ruth played in Fenway?

The American League East is full of big hitters. The Toronto Blue Jays lineup opens with five of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. The New York Yankees and Orioles are solid top to bottom. The Red Sox may have the most dangerous 3-4-5 combination of them all, but there is more to the game than meets the bat.

Canseco brings a lot to the table. He has power, personality and the kind of pride that comes from owning a division the way the Oakland Athletics did from 1988 to 1992. What he cannot do -- he proved this a couple of years ago -- is pitch, and that is an area where the Red Sox could be in trouble if they don't get help soon.

"This division is going to be won on pitching," Canseco said. "Right now, I don't see anybody dominating. I don't see anyone running away with it. The team that runs away is the team with a complete pitching staff. I don't know that anybody has a complete pitching staff."

Canseco acknowledges, however, that the Red Sox staff is more incomplete than some of the other teams in the division. The Yankees upgraded their staff with the acquisition of starter Jack McDowell and reliever John Wetteland. The Blue Jays got 1994 Cy Young Award winner David Cone. The Orioles got starter Kevin Brown and relievers Doug Jones and Jesse Orosco.

The Red Sox got Erik Hanson and Rheal Cormier to deepen the rotation and Stan Belinda to complement stopper Ken Ryan in the bullpen, but to be a strong contender, they probably need to make a big move. Randy Johnson big. Otherwise, they may be doomed to compete with the Detroit Tigers for most exciting fourth-place team in baseball.

"I think we're going to score a lot of runs," said Red Sox outfielder Mike Greenwell. "That makes for exciting baseball. But you still have to have good pitching. If we can get that, we'll have a shot. Baltimore and New York have some good pitching. That's what makes me nervous about those two ballclubs."

The Red Sox have only one guy like that -- so far. Roger Clemens remains one of the most overpowering pitchers in the game and could be in line for a tremendous season. He was 9-7 last year, but the rest of his 1994 numbers (2.85 ERA, 168 strikeouts in 170 2/3 innings) indicate that he would have been a big winner if he had gotten any kind of run support.

Aaron Sele and Frankie Rodriguez can bring it, too -- and Hanson could re-emerge as a premier starter -- but there is too much about the Red Sox staff that remains to the imagination. Things could change dramatically in the next couple of weeks, but it has to be tough on longtime Red Sox fans -- and the few remaining longtime Red Sox players -- to go into another season at a big disadvantage.

"It's not demoralizing," said Greenwell. "All those guys can be beaten, but your job is going to be tougher. You're going to have to beat them, and then you're going to have to rely on other teams to beat them. It's a very tough division, like it was in the late '80s, but it's fun like that. Every time you go into Baltimore, Toronto or New York, it's big.

"I think we can compete, but I think I would be a lot more comfortable if we can get one or two more pitchers."

There is one slight problem. The Red Sox are on a tight budget, or so they say. General manager Dan Duquette said recently that the club would like to hold its payroll to about $22 million, which makes it hard to do any serious shopping when your top 12 players make about $21 million combined.

Even factoring in the 11 percent of payroll the team will not have to pay because the season was shortened to 144 games, that leaves less than $4 million for the remaining 28 players on the 40-man roster. How do you fit in a $5 million pitcher?

"Pitching is the name of the game, and right now we need a boost," said Vaughn.

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