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Crawford too good to stay this bad

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 21, 2011

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Be careful with your words.

Bust. Mistake. Over the hill.

Carl Crawford may make you eat them.

He’s a pretty even-keeled guy who doesn’t seem to have a vengeful bone in his body. Red Sox fans have been very good to him so far, but he certainly is aware of the negative comments in the media.

Would he love to shut people up about his terrible season? Of course. Just as John Lackey would. Just as Jacoby Ellsbury has done.

Crawford is sick of talking about his season, so he doesn’t. He understands that he hasn’t been himself, and now he has a quarter-season and a postseason to show why the Red Sox are investing $142 million in him.

Crawford, who entered last night’s game in a 2-for-23 skid, went 2 for 4 with an RBI in a 9-4 loss to the Royals.

“Just battling. Just trying to move on. That’s the way I’m trying to operate,’’ he said. “Every time you guys ask me about it, I have to think about it again. Just trying to go forward with this.’’

Crawford will be with the Sox for a long time, which is why there is patience in the front office and the dugout. This is where he will likely end his career. For Crawford, the trick is to feel as comfortable with Boston as he felt with Tampa Bay.

So what’s the issue?

Nobody really knows.

“He’s pressing’’ is the most common reason given.

But why? The contract? The change of scenery? Only Crawford knows.

The Red Sox are hopeful that he will do the things he’s known for, as he did when he stole two bases Friday night against the Royals. He will hit balls into the gap. He will track down balls in the gap. He will do the things that make him an electric player, the things we haven’t seen very often in his Red Sox tenure.

“I think sometimes he presses a little bit,’’ bench coach DeMarlo Hale said. “But you look and you know the talent is going to ring out. The talent will ring out over time. I’m viewing it that way.’’

No way else to view it, really. You can trot out a million reasons for the dip in production. He played nine years on an artificial surface at Tropicana Field and that had to take a toll physically. Yet his conditioning is second to none. He’s considered one of the game’s best athletes, but when his swing gets messed up, scouts will say things like, “He’s an athlete. Not a pure baseball player.’’

Yet you don’t hit .296 over nine years being just an athlete. You’ve got to be a baseball player. And while he’s never been the most patient hitter, he’s been clutch. Just ask Rays manager Joe Maddon about all the big hits he watched Crawford deliver.

It’s not that Crawford doesn’t show glimpses of that player every now and then. He went through impressive stretches before a hamstring injury felled him for about a month.

Crawford isn’t slumping because he doesn’t work hard. The cage work with hitting coach Dave Magadan has been endless. The video work is constant. He takes his conditioning seriously and worked hard to rehab his hamstring and elbow.

He’s a popular player in the clubhouse and someone players look up to because he’s not sitting on his laurels. He’s trying to do something about his struggles, and everyone respects him for that.

Players believe they can work their way out of a slump. And when Crawford does, there will be plenty of happy faces in the Red Sox clubhouse.

The coaches have approached Crawford like the veteran he is. They work with him, but they also keep their distance. They don’t want to be overbearing and add to whatever pressure he’s feeling.

“I try to pick spots,’’ said Hale. “Let R.J. [outfield coach Ron Johnson] do his job and Mags [hitting coach Dave Magadan] do his job and let everyone do theirs.

“I think it’s important, from my point of view, to have him understand, and he knows at the end of the day that the goal is to win baseball games, win the division, qualify for the playoffs and push to the World Series. I like to keep things simple and not complicate them.’’

Injuries could continue to be a concern.

“I think with anybody going through an injury, it affects you a little bit,’’ said Hale. “One, he plays the game with speed, so if that’s limited, of course it’s a factor.

“Defensively, you have to be able to meet challenges, like hitting the cutoff man, possibly throwing someone out. That’s daily, whether you’re coming back from an injury or you’re hurt.

“One thing I learned pretty early is not everyone is 100 percent. The key is, how do you play the game where you’re at? Does the situation you’re in cause you to be aggressive or less aggressive?’’

It’s been awkward with Crawford so far. Some questioned the long-term commitment to Crawford because the Red Sox already had a lefthanded-hitting speed guy in Jacoby Ellsbury. Crawford has settled into the sixth spot in the lineup, but is that really his best spot? There has never seemed to be a right place. He hasn’t looked like a Gold Glover, either.

This is a story not unique to Boston.

Look at what the Mets have gone through with Jason Bay, whom the Sox let go into free agency. The Nationals are getting a wasted year from Jayson Werth. Adam Dunn is hitting .169 in Chicago. Until his recent 33-game hitting streak, Dan Uggla’s performance in Atlanta was ugly. Two years in and Chone Figgins is still awful in Seattle.

The common denominator: big contracts.

Whether you’re playing good, bad, or ugly, you’re not giving the money back. You’re still happy you signed the contract.

Crawford does not seem to have any regrets about his decision, knowing he never would have received a big payday in Tampa Bay, where he would have loved to stay.

For better or worse, this is Crawford’s home now. And the Red Sox are just trying to get him to start with a clean state every time he steps to the plate.

They believe that he will be Carl Crawford. They have to believe.

So be careful what you say and what you think. You might be dead wrong.

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

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