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An amazing race, regardless of the winner

He’s up for it
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 5, 2011

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TAMPA — Let’s amp up this Red Sox-Yankees rivalry to a new level.

The question is, who wins in a race between Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, and the Yankees’ Brett Gardner?

OK, you want details. Home to first? First to third? Second to home? Let’s just say in a 60-yard dash.

“Let’s line us up and do it,’’ said Gardner. “I think people would pay to see that. I honestly don’t know. It would be close, wouldn’t it?’’

The consensus is yes, it would. Players are constantly timed by scouts down the line, but even that varies from at-bat to at-bat. One Yankees scout at Steinbrenner Field last night said he timed the Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki at 3.8 seconds down the line, the fastest time he got all last season.

The scout, when posed the question, said this: “I’d say Crawford. He would have the most explosive burst over the final 30 yards. That’s what the great ones have. Because he’s more powerful with his legs, he could generate that extra kick at the end. You see his speed just get better and better. His times get stronger even as he’s gotten older. When he’s trying to beat out an infield hit, he can really turn it on. They all can.’’

A Red Sox scout at last night’s game also went with Crawford, because “Carl can get into that explosive-type speed on almost the first step. He doesn’t need a lot of start time, if you know what I mean.’’

That’s true. Two years ago, Crawford worked on getting quicker bursts and improved immensely.

One Yankee official thought Gardner would be the fastest, with Ellsbury second and Crawford third, and that Crawford probably “wasn’t in Ellsbury or Gardner’s league.’’

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman initially said Gardner, but on second thought went with Crawford, followed by Gardner and Ellsbury.

In a quick poll, some Yankees players thought it would be difficult to beat Gardner.

Crawford certainly has trained as a runner, knows the right technique, and also has the most power in his legs. Gardner can fly. And we all know the speed Ellsbury flashes. He stole home in 2009, which takes not only impeccable timing but great speed.

“That’s a tough one,’’ said Red Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald. “I don’t know what to say. What a great question. I’d like to see it, I’ll tell you that.’’

“In a 60- or 100-yard dash, Crawford wins,’’ said a scout from a National League team who watches the American League. “He would have that staying power, that explosion that maybe I just don’t see with Gardner and Ellsbury. A lot of runners are fast over the first 30 yards, but not many sustain it or accelerate. Crawford can accelerate.’’

Ellsbury and Crawford have been asked about the topic in the past, and both have laughed it off. Scouts, meanwhile, will tell you there might be a dozen world-class runners in the game. Among the others are Carlos Gomez of the Brewers, Michael Bourn of the Astros, and Julio Borbon of the Rangers.

Scouts are somewhat torn about how fast Ichiro still is, but judging by the time of 3.8 down the line, he can still run. Another scout said, “He’s still very fast, but not in the class of the guys we’re talking about. He used to be. But he’s 37 years old.’’

“First to third, Crawford is unbelievable,’’ said yet another AL scout. “He really knows how to run. Cuts the bases really well.’’

OK, that’s baseball speed. We’re just talking about a pure footrace.

“Jacoby is really fast,’’ Johnny Damon said Thursday from the Rays’ training camp in Port Charlotte. “And then when I played with Brett, I was blown away. They’re both fun to watch. Carl gives them a run for their money, that’s for sure.’’

Ellsbury has stolen more bases in one season (70) than the other two, in 2009 when he bested Crawford by 10 steals to lead the AL. Crawford has 409 steals, has been caught only 90 times, and has led the league in stolen bases four times. Gardner, last year in his first full season, stole 47 bases and was caught only nine times. So all three should compete for the stolen base title over the next few years, unless Crawford, who may see the bulk of his time as a No. 3 hitter, decides to run less.

“The Red Sox dynamic with Crawford and Ellsbury is pretty exciting,’’ said the NL scout. “Don’t know where they’ll be in the lineup, but they will cause fits for the opposition because you have to hold those guys on and it affects the way you pitch when you do that.’’

Unless they do what Gardner suggests and line up and race, we’ll never know the answer. It’s a fun debate, though. In this small sample, Crawford appears to be the choice.

Cashman was asked why he didn’t go after Crawford harder this offseason, and said, “Carl Crawford is a tremendous player. But I’ve got somebody I’m all excited about in Brett Gardner for $142 million less.’’

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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