Speed Thrills: Teams put speed back into Series

By Chris Murray
Updated: October 27, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — Smewhere in the upper strata of the baseball universe guys like James “Cool Papa” Bell, Buck O’Neil and Jackie Robinson are watching the 2008 World Series and smiling when they see a part of the game that has been obscured in recent years by everybody digging the long ball.

The speed game-stolen bases, bunts and manufacturing runs sans the long ball was a regular staple of Negro League baseball. Not only was it basic part of Black baseball, the Negro Leagues elevated “small ball” to an art form at a time when Josh Gibson was knocking balls out of the park. It eventually became the signature style of the National League when the game was integrated in 1947.

Both the Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays punched their ticket to the World Series because of their speed on the base paths. In the postseason, the Rays have elevated the stolen base and manufacturing runs to an art form that would make “Cool Papa” and all those old Negro League players green with envy. Both teams have combined to steal 10 bases in 12 attempts.

With their four stolen bases in their Game 3 loss to the Phils on Saturday, the Rays set a single-season postseason record for the most stolen bases with 22. The previous record was held by the 1975 Cincinnati Reds and the 1992 Atlanta Braves, who were led by speed merchants like Deion Sanders and Otis Nixon.

“They play ball,” said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who stole 47 bases on 50 attempts during the regular season. “They’re a team similar to ours. They’ve got guys one through nine who can put the ball in play. They’ve got guys in the middle and at the bottom of their lineup that can steal bases and they have power.”

Rays centerfielder B.J. Upton has been a thorn in the side to Phillies pitchers so far in this series. He stole a World Series-record tying three bases in one game. Only St. Louis Cardinals speedster Lou Brock, who did it twice in 1967 and 1968, Pittsburgh Pirates great Honus Wagner (1909), and Willie Davis of the Los Angeles Dodgers back in 1965 have stolen that many bases in a game.

“It’s pretty cool, those guys did a lot for baseball, and are great baseball players,” Upton said. “Like I said, anytime you can be mentioned in the same sentence as either one of those guys it’s an honor. And something that you dream about and to have the opportunity to play in the World Series. Obviously, I’d rather have a win, instead.”

Upton also tied a World Series record for the most stolen bases in one inning when he stole second and third in the eighth inning. With his team trailing 4-3 in the top of the eighth in Game 3, he got his team back into game by his sheer speed on the base paths alone. He singled to begin the inning, stole second and third and scored when catcher Carlos Ruiz’s throw went in to left field.

“The biggest key is getting a good jump. And I think I got a pretty good one,” Upton said. “Obviously pitch selection is something, off-speed, maybe get a better chance to get there. And I think he did throw an off-speed pitch and it worked out for me.”

If you think Upton is quick on the base paths, Carl Crawford is just as fast. He also helped the Rays manufacture a run as well. After reaching on a double in the second inning of Game 3, Crawford stole third and enabled the Rays to get a run without getting a base hit.

He scored on a sacrifice fly by Gabe Gross.

“Obviously I think we have one of the fastest teams in baseball,” Upton said. “And it’s such a big part of our game is speed and stealing bags and taking the extra base. That allows us to incorporate that in our game and put pressure on defenses.”

The Rays have managed to score runs in this series on very few hits. In Games 2 and 3 combined they’ve scored eight runs on just one base hit. In Game 3, only one of Tampa’s four runs came on a ball hit out of the infield. Who needs the long ball, when you have speed.

“We knew coming in that they were one of the fastest teams in the league,” Howard said. “We have a joke about who would be a good track team in baseball. The Rays would definitely be that — a good 4×100 relay. I don’t think we’re intimidated by them running the bases.”

“We can be just as intimidating.”

Oddly enough, the Rays have hit 25 homeruns in the postseason to go along with their speed. In the Rays loss to the Phils in Game 4, Crawford banged a home run.

Howard’s absolutely right about the Phillies prowess on the base paths, especially when Rollins and Shane Victorino are on because they do a good job of getting an opposing pitcher’s head.

Oddly enough, the Phillies won Game 3 on a bases loaded infield single by Carlos Ruiz that barely inched its way up the third base line. Eric Bruntlett scored on the play when third baseman Evan Longoria threw ball over Dioner Navarro’s head.

Somehow Cool Papa, Robinson and O’Neil could not have asked for a better ending for that game.