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Crawford wears his slump with a forced smile

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
Crawford wears his slump with a forced smile

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Slumping Carl Crawford has batted in five different spots in the Red Sox' lineup

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Carl Crawford(notes) laughs and he jokes and he bounces around a ballpark that, if not for free-agent negotiations that went off in a Northeasterly direction, might have been his.

Friends know better than to trust the smile. This is killing him.

Three weeks into his life with the Boston Red Sox, and a single paycheck into a seven-year, $142 million contract, Crawford has a lot more to do with Boston’s 11 losses than he does its 10 wins.

Crawford’s teammates have found themselves, winning eight of nine games – including the weekend’s four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels – since a couple weeks of really ghastly baseball. The pitching has come around. They’ve gotten just enough big hits. It even looks like, at the end of this nine-game road trip, they’ll all be allowed back into Boston.

That presumably means Crawford, too.

Somewhere along the line Crawford picked up the nickname The Perfect Storm and, for the moment, here it is: Through 82 at-bats, he’s hitting .171, has four extra-base hits, and wears an on-base percentage of .218. Manager Terry Francona has hit him third, seventh, second, first, benched him entirely, seventh again, eighth, and seems to have settled on the seven hole. Crawford’s batting average with runners in scoring position is .160, even after showing some life against the Angels.

Oh, but he’s trying to smile through it.

“The thing is about him,” said a friend, “he cares.”

He cares what people think.

He hears what they say.

He feels their disappointment, if only for a week or three.

So maybe in Boston, carrying that contract, appointed to one of the glamour jobs and batting order positions in the game, a slump of 10 at-bats turns into 20, or 30, or 82.

And plate appearances become clumsy. Decisions – sacrifice bunting in a scoreless game Thursday night with Jason Varitek(notes) on deck – become forced. Baserunning becomes tentative.

A scout says he looks “in-between on every pitch.” Another says he’s unusually vulnerable to breaking balls. Yet another says he’s late on the fastball.

“Maybe,” says one, “he’s just guessing wrong.”

Crawford took 33 swings in batting practice before a Friday night game against the Angels. Twenty-nine times the left-handed hitter shot the ball to center field or to the left of center, letting the ball travel deeper, trying to drive it the other way, head down, front shoulder closed.

The game starts and he immediately rolls a ball to second base. Then he pops a ball into short right-center field. Then, after a strikeout, he grounds out to second base again. And another 0-for-4 outing was born.

Maybe it’s bad habits, bad luck, bad thoughts. Maybe it’s all three, wound into one awful month, into one imperfect storm.

So maybe he is an awful starter, and we just didn’t pay attention when he was playing for Tampa Bay. Nope. While April traditionally is his weakest month, it isn’t excessively so. Maybe he has a month like this every once in a while, tucked into six months a season, into 650-some plate appearances. Nope. From the first to the last of any month of any season since 2002, his rookie year, he’s never experienced anything close to this.

“It’s funny,” he said. “Everything is good. Only thing that’s bad is my play on the field. The game is the crazy thing.”

The game, along with where it’s played and who it’s played in front of. In eight games at Fenway Park, Crawford is batting a buck-eight. That the Red Sox have won five of them has helped a little. And the Olde Towne folk haven’t turned on him yet. A double he hit last Monday in Boston drew a standing ovation, and not a sarcastic one either.

Still, Crawford admits life is different when you’re in the Fens and your hitting mechanics are swamped.

“Of course it is,” he said. “Everything is brought to light. Before, I could get away with something like this. I could easily get away with this. Nobody would know.”

Only him.

And even then he’d care, he’d hear, and he’d feel.

A week ago, a former big league manager told me, “You know, Crawford isn’t a No. 3 hitter anyway. And he’s not a good outfielder, with his arm. He’s not who they think they got.”

It’s so easy to say today, when the numbers are ugly and the man is vulnerable, when he’s worn the uniform for a few weeks. I believe otherwise. He is every bit who the Red Sox believed in, just not yet. He is cut from the AL East, bred of relentlessness and intelligence and consistency and remarkably talented. There’s too much good history.

So, he forces a laugh and a joke and a bounce into his day.

When Angels fans, unhappy with Crawford’s decision to sign with the Red Sox and not the Angels, lobbed dollar bills into the on-deck circle, Crawford could only find the humor in it.

“I thought that was funny,” he said. “But I don’t need their money. Gas prices are $5 a gallon. They might want to keep it so they can drive this summer.”

Maybe by then he’ll be hitting again.

“It’s like I’m the only guy who doesn’t know how to hit right now,” he said.

He smiled and stood up, said goodbye, went off to the batting cage. Yeah, it’s killing him.