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Tampa Bay Rays' 1-2 punch of B.J. Upton and Crawford is finding its mark

ARLINGTON, Texas — Rays bench coach Dave Martinez played with the speedy duo of Marquis Grissom and Delino DeShields when they wreaked havoc atop the Montreal Expos batting order in the early 1990s.

Martinez also got a close look at the Cardinals' All-Star 1-2 punch of Vince Coleman and Willie McGee as an opponent.

But when Martinez tries to compare them to the dynamic duo of B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford, the coach said the Rays tandem offers more, with a blend of speed and power that has no peer in today's game.

"B.J. and C.C. bring a lot more to the table because of their power," Martinez said. "Not only can they steal, they can drive the ball, drive in runs. I was trying to think the other day of two guys atop the order like that right now, and you can't find any.

"At the end of the year, both could end up with 20 homers and steal 60-70 bases."

With Upton heating up in the leadoff spot after a slow start due to offseason shoulder surgery and Crawford arguably playing better than he ever has in a Rays uniform, the two are turning into the catalysts manager Joe Maddon envisioned when he paired them to start this season.

"They bring that unique ability to the top of the order," ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan said. "And no other team has that."

They're on the verge of becoming just the third set of teammates in AL history to each reach 30 steals by the All-Star break; Crawford's 40 lead the majors, Upton's 29 are third. And their aggressiveness has impacted the entire lineup, a big reason why the Rays lead the majors in runs.

"It makes it a lot easier as a hitter when you know that pitchers are more worried about the guy that's on base than you," said Evan Longoria, who has 63 RBIs hitting behind the two. "You get a lot more fastballs and a lot more balls over the plate."

A perfect example was the recent series against the Blue Jays. In Monday's third inning, Upton stole second, drawing an errant throw from catcher Rod Barajas, putting Upton at third. One pitch later, Crawford ripped a rare hanging breaking ball from Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay into the Rogers Centre rightfield seats. By Wednesday, Jays fans became so agitated with Crawford, they chanted "Craw-ford! Craw-ford! Craw-ford!"

"Those two guys, with the speed they have, if they get on, they're going to be dangerous," Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "Anytime you have speed, you can change the game around. You make people hurry throws, everyone is out of their way of thinking, you make people rush."

Upton's speed is more fluid, so it can be deceptive how fast he is. But Crawford, 27 and a four-time AL stolen base champ, has "first two steps that are unbelievable," Martinez said.

"Just how quick he can get to his top speed, I've never seen anything like it," Upton said. "They pitch out and still aren't even close. You can't coach it, can't teach it."

Crawford, who has more steals than eight teams, has gotten better at his craft through researching pitchers' moves. He said he never really studied them that much until hamstring issues last season forced him to "learn how to steal with not as much speed."

Crawford's base-stealing isn't the only aspect of the game that has been more polished this season. Maddon said the two-time All-Star has an improved approach at the plate — he has eight homers and was fourth in the AL going into Thursday's play with a .320 average.

Maddon said, "He's been playing as well as I've seen him play, I'm saying the total game."

The wild card in the lineup experiment was Upton, 24, who showed his power potential in last year's postseason, hitting seven home runs. With the Rays acquiring Pat Burrell in the offseason, it allowed Maddon to move Upton to the top.

Even when Upton struggled to start the season after a rehab-shortened spring, Maddon showed patience, and faith. Upton rewarded him, earning an AL player of the week award, hitting seven homers and hitting safely in 31 of his past 38 games.

"You're seeing what he's capable of," Maddon said. "B.J. has really grown up a lot over the last year or two. He's really got a different way — a more professional way — about him.

"He's getting it. He knows that as he goes, we go."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Need for speed

With one more steal by B.J. Upton (he has 29), both he and Carl Crawford (who has 40) will become just the third set of American League teammates (and seventh overall) to each rack up 30 steals before the All-Star break:

Here are the others:

• Billy North (42) and Don Baylor (36), A's, 1976

• Ron LeFlore (49) and Rodney Scott (30), Montreal Expos, 1980

• Julio Cruz (39) and Rudy Law (32), White Sox, 1983

• Vince Coleman (63) and Willie McGee (36), Cardinals, 1985

• Marquis Grissom (38) and Delino DeShields (37), Expos, 1991

• Marquis Grissom (45) and Delino DeShields (33), Expos, 1992

Source: Rays

Tampa Bay Rays' 1-2 punch of B.J. Upton and Crawford is finding its mark 07/02/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 3, 2009 12:17am]

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