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Upton, Crawford becoming MLB's best tandem

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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TORONTO

Rod Barajas and I have a difference of opinion. Barajas, of course, is the starting catcher for the Toronto Blue Jays. On the first two nights of this week's series at Rogers Centre, he watched B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford combine for three home runs, two stolen bases and four runs scored.
Naturally, the Tampa Bay Rays won both games. "It's not easy to get those guys out," Barajas said Wednesday morning. "Soft ground balls can be base hits. Once they get on base, they cause a whole bunch of havoc. Pitchers are worried about them. They change their times to the plate. It changes what you're trying to do." In summation, Barajas offered the following praise/lament: "Those two guys," he said, "are just a nightmare." Well, here's where we disagree. From a vantage point in the stands (or press box), there is no more exciting pair of table-setters in the game today. I would probably feel differently if my livelihood involved trying to keep them off the bases. A little while ago, I wrote that Milwaukee's Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder constitute the best power-hitting tandem in baseball. After watching the Rays for three days in Toronto, I have a similar opinion of Upton, 24, and Crawford, 27, among Nos. 1 and 2 hitters. Wiser men have arrived at similar conclusions. "I've never seen two athletes like that at the top of any lineup, in the time I've been playing," fellow Rays outfielder Gabe Kapler said. "They are arguably the top two pure athletes in baseball. "Watching them work, back-to-back, is spectacular. First of all, they're completely different in style. Carl, you can actually see his speed on the field. B.J., it's really subtle, but he's probably just as fast and explosive. Carl is more visual. B.J. is really fluid. It's deceptive, how fast he is. "They're both really, really fun to watch." The defending American League champs apparently subscribe to one of the least-talked-about theories in sports: Winning teams must continually change their rosters, ever-so-subtly, in order to remain on top. During the offseason, Rays officials resolved to add another hitter. They found Pat Burrell, who, like Upton, bats right-handed. The need for Upton to bat third, as he did frequently in 2008, had diminished. "It freed B.J., to take him out of a more RBI-ish situation in the middle and put him at the top," manager Joe Maddon said. So, Upton would bat leadoff, followed by Crawford. Speed and power, then speed and more power. Great idea, right? Well, the initial returns were not encouraging. Upton, still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, was hitting .204 at the end of May. But Maddon stuck with the plan and was rewarded handsomely in June. The Rays went 19-7, Upton batted .324 with five home runs and the team surged back into the divisional and wild-card races. Tampa Bay had won seven straight before falling 5-0 to Toronto 5-0 on Wednesday afternoon. "It's been a lot of fun," Upton said. "If we're rolling at the same time, we're a tough team to beat." "Early on in the season, it didn't look that good," Maddon said. "But it's one of those things that you can see, in your mind's eye, that when it clicks it could be really special. So, for me, it was easy to stay with it." Speaking of staying with it: You may recall that, not long ago, the Rays were known for losing records and a talented-yet-discombobulated outfield. They didn't know how reliable their own players were going to be, let alone where they might play. Josh Hamilton. Elijah Dukes. Delmon Young. The popular-yet-too-often-injured Rocco Baldelli. Upton was a shortstop, then a third baseman, then a second baseman, before learning how to play the outfield ... as a big leaguer. Meantime, Crawford was playing on some really lousy teams. Well, all of them are gone. Except Upton and Crawford. They play side-by-side now, Upton in center and Crawford in left. "When we were in the process of converting our roster from a collection of talent to a functioning baseball team," general manager Andrew Friedman said Wednesday. "Crawford and Upton separated themselves as keys to that effort." When I asked Upton this week if he thought, as a minor leaguer, that he would become a leadoff-hitting centerfielder, he smiled. "Maybe the leadoff hitter," came the reply. "Center fielder? No. But I've liked the move. I enjoy it out there. I don't want to be anywhere else." Toronto manager Cito Gaston, an admirer of both players, said earlier this week that the common scouting report on Crawford is that he has more trouble with breaking balls than fastballs. Well ... On Monday, he took a Roy Halladay breaking ball over the right field wall. On Tuesday, he took a down-and-in Scott Richmond breaking ball over the right field wall. On Wednesday, he almost took a Ricky Romero breaking ball over the right field wall. "We had our advance meeting, going over the hitters, and our pitching coach (Brad Arnsberg) said, 'This is probably one of the toughest guys to scout,'" Barajas recalled of Crawford, who's hitting .320 with eight home runs and 38 RBIs. "He hits the ball in every area. He has hits in locations where you don't think it's possible. The guy's covering both sides of the plate, up and down. You need to try to figure it out. Obviously, to this point, not too many people have." With either of them, singles become doubles. They steal often and with a startling rate of success. Crawford leads the majors with 40 stolen bases; Upton is third with 29. It has reached the point where — unless the pitcher is a quick-pitching wizard — pitchouts and pickoffs are the only realistic means of eliminating them from the basepaths. Already, we are seeing signs of the league-wide agitation at the duo's rare talent. Late in Wednesday's game, some fans seated in left field at Rogers Centre began a singsong chant: CRAW-FORD! CRAW-FORD! CRAW-FORD! They were treating him like a goaltender who was stonewalling their beloved Maple Leafs. "I don't know what that was all about," Crawford said with a shrug. "Just one of those things. I have to roll with it. I've never had that happen to me before." Well, if homering in back-to-back victories is all it takes to earn such attention, he and Upton will have little choice but to get used to the jeers.
Tagged: Red Sox, Brewers, Twins, Blue Jays, Nationals, Rays, Roy Halladay, Pat Burrell, Rod Barajas, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Prince Fielder, Scott Richmond, Ricky Romero

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