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Pain-free Canseco eyes early return

The strength is back in his voice, the smile is back on his face. And if you listen to slugger Jose Canseco, his bat could be back in the lineup in about two weeks.

Easy, big fella.

Canseco, who has been rehabbing in St. Petersburg the past four days, said he is well ahead of schedule and has great plans for his comeback.

"After surgery, the pain was completely gone and I felt great," said Canseco, who met with reporters in the clubhouse before Friday's game. "The next day, I walked out of the hospital and I felt incredible.

"I came in two or three days ago to do their rehab program, which they said would take five or six days to do, and I did it in one hour with no soreness, no nothing. I felt great. I still think I'm two or three weeks ahead of schedule. If it were left to me I would be in the lineup in 10 or 11 days."

Rays trainer Jamie Reed said he was not surprised by Canseco's torrid rehab pace but cautioned that the team's home run leader needs to be patient.

"He's doing great and is pain-free, but I think he needs to complete his full rehab schedule," Reed said. "Let's wait and see how things go."

In a talkative mood, Canseco said he not only thinks about coming back this year, but resuming his American League home run chase with Seattle's Ken Griffey. When Canseco went on the disabled list July 10, he led the AL with 31 homers. Griffey now has 35.

"Anything can happen, I can get five in a week," Canseco said.

More proof the Canseco confidence is back: "Before I die, I'm going to hit 500 home runs, no doubt about it. The injuries will not keep me from it I guarantee you I will hit 500."

SECOND IMPRESSIONS: Called up from Durham on July 30 while the Rays were in Oakland, 2B Tony Graffanino made his Tropicana Field debut Friday but didn't have the usual jitters of a first appearance at home.

Graffanino played at Tropicana Field last year for the Braves.

"I was thinking about that coming to the ballpark," he said. "I'm not too nervous because I have actually played here last year, so I know about the infield and all the bounces."

Asked if playing at the Trop signaled his arrival with the big club, he responded: "As long as I have a uniform with the big club's logo on it, I have arrived."

TONY, TONY, TONY: LHP Tony Saunders, who broke his arm May 28, returned from his home in Maryland and said he is progressing well.

"The bone is healing but the nerve's not completely right yet," said Saunders, who had the cast removed, got a new flat-top and lost 12 pounds. "I've got about two more months to wait. By the end of September, they feel I'll be ready to go and I can start fully rehabbing. I'll be ready by December."

FLASH BACK: Starting C John Flaherty sat out his second straight game but is not being benched because of an injury or because of his 0-for-11 mini-slump in the past three games, manager Larry Rothschild said. Mike DiFelice started in his place.

"John's played great all year and I haven't had a chance to play Mike in back-to-back games and this is one of the opportunities," Rothschild said. "John's the starting catcher, make no mistake about that."

INJURY UPDATE: Miguel Cairo, who went on the DL on July 30 with a left hamstring strain, is expected to make a minor-league start today and Monday for the St. Pete Rays. He will play second base and lead off and could be called up shortly. SS Kevin Stocker's left knee inflammation "still hasn't progressed to on-the-field activity," Rothschild said. 3B Herbert Perry, also on the DL with a left oblique muscle strain, has not started swinging the bat.

RAYS BITS: Durham 1B Steve Cox was named Topps International League Player of the Month for July. He appeared in 29 games, hit .391 (45-for-115) with 14 doubles, 6 home runs and 35 RBI. He also was named Rays Minor League Player of the Month. Cleveland will start Jaret Wright on Sunday instead of Mark Langston.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE: In the top of the ninth, with Roberto Hernandez on the mound and Einar Diaz at the plate, bench coach Frank Howard showed some of the power he had as a major-leaguer.

After Hernandez walked Diaz on a check swing, a heated face-to-face argument ensued between catcher Mike DiFelice and home-plate umpire Brian O'Nora.

Howard, who took over after manager Larry Rothschild was ejected in the sixth, ran onto the field and shoved DiFelice away from O'Nora.

"I tell you what, that's some good pass blocking, he should try to be an offensive lineman," DiFelice said. "That was some good separation.

"We had a nice rhythm going in the game and he was just telling me to stay in the game," DiFelice said.

RAYS BITS: Although the Rays haven't announced it, LHP Wilson Alvarez said he felt fine after throwing on the side and will start Sunday. Indians CF Jacob Cruz tore a ligament in his right thumb and may need surgery. Rays 2B Tony Graffanino changed his number from 62 to 26. He has hit safely in all seven games since being called up. _ ROGER MILLS, MARC TOPKIN