Speed on display as Angels, Rays clash
Team Figgins vs. Crawford & Co. in three-game showdown
ANAHEIM -- Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fastest of them all?
It's open to debate as the Anaheim Relays unfold with Monday's series opener. Carl Crawford and Co. are coming in from Tampa Bay to challenge Chone Figgins and friends on their home turf.
With Crawford jetting off to a torrid pace and B.J. Upton right behind him, the Rays are leading the Majors in steals by a substantial margin, with the Angels, second, in pursuit.
The Rays also have been more efficient in their thievery than Team Figgins, which also features sly Bobby Abreu, electric Erick Aybar, smooth-as-silk Maicer Izturis, sleek Gary Matthews Jr., powerful Howard Kendrick and -- when healthy -- dynamic Torii Hunter.
"Speed never slumps," Kendrick, the Angels second baseman, said.
Crawford, whose home-run-saving catch against Brad Hawpe made him the All-Star Game MVP, ranks among the fastest players of this or any era.
"It's going to be a good test," Crawford said. "All our games from now on out are going to be good tests.
"At this point in time, they're playing well, so they're going to be tough to deal with. They have some key pitching back that they didn't have earlier in the season. They're going to be looking forward to piling up on the lead they have."
The Rays are chasing the Yankees in the loaded American League East, and they're also involved in a tight Wild Card race involving the Red Sox and Rangers.
Upton is the Rays' leadoff man, and he's a great talent, but Crawford is Tampa Bay's generator.
"The big thing is, he's healthy for most of the season," Figgins said of the Rays' left fielder who leads the Majors in steals. "That's a huge part of it. He's a game-changer. He can really beat you in a lot of ways.
"I'm surprised they don't lead him off more. Upton is a little more patient, I guess. That two-hole is the best spot in baseball to hit. You have so much freedom there. Guy gets on base, you can bunt, hit-and-run, swing for a gap ... and you're going to get pitches to hit, especially if the guy in front of you can steal."
Stealing the Show
Angels catcher Mike Napoli is keenly aware of the problems posed by the Rays' blazing speed. Shortstop Jason Bartlett joins Crawford and Upton among the AL leaders in steals.
"It almost gives you a sense of what we do to other teams," Napoli said. "The pressure you put on other pitchers and catchers with your speed, the way you go first to third. They're very similar to us like that. I think that's why we always have pretty good games against them."
The Rays and their manager, former Angels bench coach Joe Maddon, are paying their first visit to Anaheim. They took two of three from the Angels in St. Petersburg from June 9-11, prompting a rare verbal thrashing of the troops by Mike Scioscia after an abysmal performance in the series finale.
Kendrick thinks it's apparent that Scioscia's former lieutenant brought the same aggressive style that became the Angels' brand to Florida.
"Joe's a smart guy," Kendrick said. "I used to enjoy talking to him when he was here. He's a positive person. It seems like they go out and have fun playing the game, the whole team. They play the game to the fullest -- like us.
"When you're relaxed and having fun, it makes the game a lot freer."
Maddon sees similarities in his current and former teams -- to a point.
"They are similar," Maddon said. "I think we have more power. Even though we've stolen more bases, they're pretty fast. Both teams are not concerned about making mistakes.
"I've always thought, why not have a combination of speed and power? For me, you have to work around your personnel. When you walk in the first day and saw these young, athletic-looking players ... philosophically, this is how I like it.
"I definitely wanted something like that. But if you don't have the personnel to do those kinds of things, you can talk about it all you want. But we had that personnel."
The Rays took the season series last year, 6-3, en route to the AL pennant. The Angels had dominated the previous two seasons, going a combined 13-4 against Tampa Bay.
"We played well against them at our place and they played well against us at their place," Maddon said. "It's tough to win at Angel Stadium. It's a solid home-court advantage for them.
"Tendency-wise, they know us; we know them. It comes down to your starting pitching. It just does. The past couple years we've gotten the better of them at Tropicana, and they've gotten the better of us out here. It's going to be tough."
Maddon can see the influence of right fielder Bobby Abreu on the Angels with his disciplined plate approach.
"They've had to overcome a lot," Maddon said. "The biggest thing that's different is their offense. I think Abreu has had a tremendous impact there. I think he's flipping the culture.
"You see their on-base percentage now is way up. They're more willing to accept walks. He started that thought process. I think they're playing more of that game. They've become more patient."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.