Don't blink, or you'll miss the Rays
Tampa Bay's speedsters proving lethal on basepaths in ALDS
ST. PETERSBURG -- Long before most of the baseball world was ready to accept the Rays as legit, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen pointed out Tampa Bay's potent combination of speed and athleticism.
In the two clubs' first series back in April, Guillen used the term "rabbits" to describe the Rays baserunners, and he was wary of Tampa Bay's young legs flying around Tropicana Field's turf.
Unfortunately for Guillen, his White Sox have a front-row seat to what speed can do in October.
Six months after the Chicago skipper's initial comments, the fleet-footed Rays have proved to be a critical factor in Tampa Bay's first two wins of the series.
The Rays banged out a combined three doubles and two triples in those two victories. And their ability to advance -- from first to third, second to home and, on Friday, first to home -- has helped the club manufacture some critical runs with those timely hits.
Taking a 3-2 lead into the eighth inning on Friday, B.J. Upton turned what should have been a leadoff double into a triple. The 24-year-old Upton kicked it into high gear, reaching third base without even a throw from Chicago's defense. Upton scored easily on a single from Carl Crawford, who immediately put himself into scoring position by swiping second.
Crawford scored on designated hitter Rocco Baldelli's two-out hit, and Baldelli followed his predecessors with a dazzling speedy display of his own. When catcher Dioner Navarro hit a bloop double to center field, Baldelli ran through a stop sign from third-base coach Tom Foley, to score the third run of the inning all the way from first.
The daring dash and subsequent slide didn't just tack on another insurance run; it gave the Rays a shot of adrenaline.
"We want to win," Crawford said. "We're going to play as hard as we can. That's the way we've been doing it. Seeing Rocco do that fired everybody up."
Friday night's starting outfield alone -- Upton, Crawford and Fernando Perez -- have a combined 117 stolen bases this season between Triple-A and the majors. The trio has combined for 12 seasons of 40 or more steals.
"We didn't know how much of an advantage [speed] would be," Crawford said. "We were hoping that it would work to our advantage, and it did [Friday]."
The Rays entered the series with a resounding edge on the basepaths, leading the Majors with 142 stolen bases. Chicago had 67, second-worst in the American League. Of the Rays' steals, Upton's 44 were tops on the team, while Crawford -- who missed nearly two months -- finished with 25. The return of Crawford in left field gives the Rays a defensive boost and adds another spark plug on the bases.
And make no mistake: those sparks are increasingly becoming a thorn in the White Sox side.
"They're here for a reason," Guillen said. "They're here because they can pitch and they catch the ball. They will take any little thing and take advantage of their speed and they don't strike out much. When you have that combination ... you can be anything in the big leagues."
Friday night, the Rays speed didn't just add excitement to the offense, it helped out the pitchers on the hill in a big way.
With a 37-pitch first inning, starter Scott Kazmir was having trouble finding his rhythm. Perez -- granted a last-second start in right -- made a terrific grab in foul territory for the second out of the second inning. Perez seemingly came out of nowhere, falling into the Rays bullpen to retire Orlando Cabrera.
Even with the White Sox defense playing him in, the speedy Perez nearly turned a routine ground ball into an infield single Friday night.
And by keeping constant pressure on Chicago's infield, the Rays' speed-infused lineup has forced the Sox to find a way to counteract their pesky running.
So far, Chicago has no solution. And the hard-hitting, veteran lineup has dropped two straight games to the speedy, inexperienced Rays.
For Tampa Bay, it's just further reassurance in sticking to their season-long plan: consistent, smart baseball.
"All these things we been doing them all year," Crawford said. "We just hope it works for us when we are playing in these [postseason] games."
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.