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They’d like him up to speed

Crawford is set to return tonight

Recovered from a mildly hyperextended knee, Josh Beckett delivers to the Rays in the first. Recovered from a mildly hyperextended knee, Josh Beckett delivers to the Rays in the first. (Brian Blanco/Associated Press)
By Nick Cafardo
July 18, 2011

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The Red Sox shocked the baseball world by adding two huge pieces to their offense last December in Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.

The accolades have flowed for Gonzalez, who has been one of the top three players in the game this season.

The storyline on Crawford has been far different. But tonight, Crawford has the opportunity to begin reversing some of the disappointment when he rejoins the team in Baltimore after missing a month with a hamstring pull.

The Sox, who have received very little production from the corner outfield spots, need to see the Crawford who got better in his nine seasons with the Rays, which earned him a seven-year, $142 million contract from the Sox. They’d rather not see the Crawford who has had a slow start to his time in Boston, though he had begun to resemble the player he was with the Rays about three weeks before injuring his hamstring.

Crawford spent those nine seasons on the turf at Tropicana Field. There have been three different surfaces here, and each time technology has made the field a little bit more tolerable. But think about it, how much wear and tear did Crawford have in those legs before coming to Boston, and should it be a concern?

He missed a month with the bad hammy; he never missed that many games during the few times he overextended himself during his Rays career.

“No question it takes its toll,’’ said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon. “As a writer, if you spent nine years, 81 times a year, walking around here you wouldn’t feel so good. So imagine nine years of playing on it. This is new stuff this year and it’s much softer than the old stuff. You like to think it’s closer to natural grass. Nine years of it is gonna beat you up.’’

Maddon didn’t say it, but Rays sources said there were concerns about the long-term effect of the turf on Crawford and whether there would be a reduction in speed and thus a decline in stolen bases and in his play in the outfield. The Rays couldn’t afford him anyway, but such things were discussed internally as justification for not making such a long commitment.

With Crawford still on the right side of 30, the Sox did their due diligence, pored over his medicals, and concluded that as a highly developed athlete who keeps his body in tremendous shape, he would hold off Father Time and the effects of the turf.

If his legs did go, they thought out what they’d be left with. And that wouldn’t be so bad - a lefthanded gap hitter who could produce 20 homers and drive in 80-100 runs. Even if that’s what he eventually becomes, they feel they can live with it for the final two or three years of the contract. But if it comes sooner than that, it would be hard to justify that salary for a player who no longer could use his legs as the weapon he does now.

Maddon said he had to give Crawford two straight days off from playing the field at times. Sometimes that included a day as the designated hitter. Maddon said he also has to monitor B.J. Upton, for despite his being only 26, “B.J.’s legs will get heavy.’’ He watches Matt Joyce, and said he would have been concerned for Johnny Damon, who now has become the full-time DH, if Manny Ramirez had spent the year with the Rays and Damon had had to play more outfield.

Maddon said Crawford was always honest with him about when he needed time to rest his legs. He did feel beat up at times. Coming to the Sox and not spending as much time on turf was only supposed to help, but a half-year into his Sox career came the leg injury.

Maddon insists that a combination of Sam Fuld and Justin Ruggiano has more than replaced Crawford in left field, even though Crawford was a Gold Glover who Don Zimmer once said was “the best left fielder I ever saw.’’ Where the Rays haven’t replaced Crawford is offensively.

“We just haven’t been able to replace Carl and the things he did and the clutch hits and the production,’’ Maddon said. “That we haven’t been able to do, and I didn’t expect we were going to unless we had Manny here all season.’’

Crawford is hitting .243 with six homers and 31 RBIs with a .659 OPS in 67 games, 263 at-bats.

Maddon has been a bit surprised with Crawford’s slow start, though he was aware that Crawford had begun to resemble the player he managed.

“He had his times here when he’d start to dip and we kind of knew when it was going to come and how long it would last,’’ Maddon said. “But Carl always picked it back up and at the end of the year his numbers were always where we expected them to be.’’

That may be the case again. At least the Sox hope so.

There’s been talk about Crawford pressing, trying to live up to the enormous contract. One Rays source said that the quiet Crawford was always a creature of habit, enjoying a comfort zone with the Rays in which he felt he could relax and be himself. The source said no matter where Crawford went, he would have had problems adapting to the new environment. The source said he expects Crawford eventually will find that comfort spot in Boston.

Crawford, who has a .294 career average with 110 homers and 109 triples, suffered the injury while trying to beat out an infield single against the Brewers June 17. He had batted .316 over his previous 21 games.

With David Ortiz likely to begin serving a reduced three-game suspension tonight in Baltimore, it gives Terry Francona the opportunity to perhaps ease Crawford back into the lineup as a DH. But make no mistake, this is a significant piece to add to the lineup if he resembles the Crawford of old.

Crawford wants to be considered in the same light as Gonzalez in Boston. To do that, he has to show he’s worthy.

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

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