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Crawford an oasis of certainty for Rays

There is so much that the Devil Rays don't know about this season. How will Akinori Iwamura play? How much will Rocco Baldelli play? Are Elijah Dukes and B.J. Upton really ready to play?

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 30, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - There is so much that the Devil Rays don't know about this season. How will Akinori Iwamura play? How much will Rocco Baldelli play? Are Elijah Dukes and B.J. Upton really ready to play?

But there is one thing they can be certain of: that Carl Crawford will play well.

And, actually, another:

That he'll likely play better than he did before.

"It's personal to me. I want to see if I can top everything I did the year before," Crawford said. "If you're always trying to get better, you aren't going to slack off as far as taking it easy. A lot of guys are happy with what they have done already. Me? I want to see how far I can go."

Crawford, 25, has done plenty well already. In 4 1/2 major-league seasons, he has led the American League in stolen bases and triples three times, was an All-Star, has been voted team MVP twice and is considered among the game's most exciting all-around players. He is one of only two players in history to increase his home runs and batting average in five consecutive seasons and is on numerous short lists of accomplishments combining speed, power and skill.

But with tantalizing athletic ability and a work ethic manager Joe Maddon said is unparalleled, Crawford is looking for more this season. He'd like to increase his home run total 18 last year, throw out more runners (10) and reach the 60-steal level for the first time, as well as improve on less quantifiable things, such as getting better breaks on balls.

"Offense, defense, pretty much everything, I think there's a lot of space to get better," he said. "I'm learning more stuff each and every year."

Maddon said Crawford is not only getting better but is learning how to be a better player, praising him for being more receptive to "new ideas and thoughts."

That will be one of the challenges this season as the Rays have moved him from the coveted No. 3 spot in the batting order back to the leadoff role, basically swapping him and Baldelli.

Crawford, who prides himself on his increasing home run totals and a .321 career average with runners in scoring position, hopes it doesn't affect his performance.

"I've let everybody from the coaches and the general manager convince me that it won't hurt my game, so we'll just have to see," he said. "I'll get to run a lot more. I don't know if I'll ever get 100 RBIs out of the leadoff spot, but obviously that's not what they want me to do. ... I'm just going to do my thing and whatever happens, happens."

Maddon just wants him to try: "Him accepting the chance to be a leadoff hitter right now really means a lot to us. In some regard I know we're putting him in an uncomfortable situation not having done it, but if this works this way for us, I think it's the best way."

Crawford is also a bit unsure about another change the Rays made for him, reducing the height of the Tropicana Field leftfield corner wall from 9 feet to 5 to create the opportunity for exciting leaping catches. Crawford said it would have been better to lower the back wall rather than one he could be running toward at full speed.

"That's going to be a little tough being right down the line," he said. "I don't know about that."

As Crawford continues to improve, the progress may be less obvious.

"It's hard for him to make radical jumps because his game is that good. But he's so driven, you'll see gradual, little things show up," Maddon said.

"As he adds these little nuances to his game, and as he becomes even more aware on the field, that's what is truly going to separate him. And that's what will permit him to help us win games late - whether it's with his glove, on the bases or with his bat. Because he can impact a game in so many different ways."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801.

Fast Facts:

Getting better all the time ...

Carl Crawford and Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby are the only players in history to increase their batting average and home runs over five consecutive seasons (with at least 250 at bats in each):

Crawford

HornSby

Year

Avg. HRs
2002 .259 2
2003 .281 5
2004 .296 11
2005 .301 15
2006 .305 18

Source: Rays

Year Avg. HRs
1918 .281 5
1919 .318 8
1920 .370 9
1921 .397 21
1922 .401 42