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Arms' lengths away

Pitching depth crucial in division

TORONTO -- ''Curt from the Car" and ''Curt from the Airport" makes for entertaining radio. And we find it noble of the Red Sox to offer the Witness Protection Program to shortstop Edgar Renteria, so he doesn't have to answer to the boo birds and the inquiring media.

But those are not the real issues for this team.

The issue is that, after their West Coast and interleague phases, they are in a stretch of 10 games against American League East teams, and this would be as good a time as any for the Sox to establish themselves as the best of the division. Last night's 9-6 loss was not a step in that direction.

The most important thing Schilling has said of late is that he might return by mid-June. That would restore the Sox' six-man rotation -- though the way David Wells is pitching, it's obvious he's not all the way back.

What must separate Boston from the rest of the division is pitching depth. Bronson Arroyo, Tim Wakefield, and Matt Clement all have done their part. The addition of a healthy Schilling and Wells should swing the balance of power in the division. But over this 10-game stretch, establishing some dominance wouldn't be a bad idea.

Four AL East teams are within 4 1/2 games of one another. It's one big cluster. Baltimore has been the most consistent and fastest out of the gate, and it has been able to maintain a lead over Boston. New York started poorly, came on, and has leveled off. The Blue Jays have been pretty consistent for a young team.

''There are some things that are the same and some things that are clearly different," said Blue Jays general manager J.P Ricciardi before last night's game. ''Obviously, Boston is very talented, but they have had injuries to a couple of pretty important pitchers. New York is coming back and clearly Baltimore and our ball club are much improved."

What you don't want if you're the Red Sox is for the Blue Jays and Orioles to hang around all year and be a thorn in your side. The Yankees already are that.

''This whole division is much tougher," said Kevin Millar. ''Look at how tough Tampa Bay played us. We've kind of split with the Yankees and Blue Jays, and the Orioles have gotten off to a great start. It's still early, but, hey, you'd love to get on a roll and start taking off. But I'm sure those teams know we're going to be in it, and if we have to battle with all of them, that's what we'll do."

With last night's loss, the Sox are 11-11 against the East. That was a lot worse than the Orioles' 16-6, a bit off Toronto's 13-10, and much better than New York's 9-14. The Blue Jays won only five of their 19 meetings with Boston last season. They are already 4-2 against the Sox.

We've been hearing that it's too early to begin the divisional watch, but it's almost Memorial Day, and that's usually a time to assess where you are and where you're going.

The pitchers' injuries and other circumstances have prevented a Red Sox lift-off.

The lineup simply hasn't clicked yet.

There have been two or three hitters hot at the same time, but not seven or eight.

Renteria continues to be an enigma, though he showed signs of breaking out last night. David Ortiz hasn't really been devastating. And Manny Ramirez appears to be getting his right-field stroke back, a sign he's ready to take off.

''I don't think we've hit our stride," said manager Terry Francona. ''But we really grind it out. We make pitchers work so hard. We do it really well and that's the reason for a lot of their success. The weather has been lousy for everyone, but when we start seeing some hot days, our hitters are going to respond to that. It's not because they're not trying."

''I know that it's hard for Red Sox fans to hear that these hitters will come around, but they will," Ricciardi said. ''Nobody in our organization or the Yankees organization or the Orioles is thinking that, 'Gee, we have a chance because the Red Sox aren't hitting.' You'd be foolish to think that.

''We also know they're going to pitch. They picked up some nice talent in Matt Clement and Wade Miller, and Wells is a good veteran pitcher who is going to straighten himself out."

The Red Sox would love to be in position by the trading deadline where they won't have to flirt with the idea of having to add a Roger Clemens -- even though it would be a dramatic story. The battle for Clemens's services might be a tug-of-war between the Yankees and Orioles in the East, or the Rangers and Angels in the West. Ricciardi knows his ownership will give him the green light to pursue someone who could help the Blue Jays make the playoffs. If they're in position.

''Pitching is such a big part of this," Francona said. ''Look at the Braves. They have great pitching and they know on any given day they're going to get a good pitching performance and they have a chance to win. At the end of the season, they win a lot more than they lose."

Which is why getting Wells straightened out, getting Schilling back, and returning Keith Foulke to his dominant state -- while not as entertaining as Curt in the Car and Millar's protection of Renteria -- are the issues. And these are the games the Sox need to pay close attention to.

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