The Carl Crawford question: Where was he?

Dear Brian Matusz … and Chris Jakubauskas … and Jeremy Accardo … and Brad Bergesen,

Thanks, dudes.

--Carl Crawford

The happiest man in Fenway Park on Monday wasn’t Terry Francona or Conor Jackson or Jacoby Ellsbury or even the beer vendor who made a couple extra hundred bucks in tips from a game that lasted nearly four hours and featured 376 pitches.

No, the happiest man was Crawford, who didn’t even play. He didn’t play in the first game of the doubleheader either. He had a stiff neck, and considering the importance of the games, he better have been wearing a brace. But the Red Sox won 18-9 to avoid an embarrassing sweep and remain two games ahead of the idle Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card race. Jackson hit a grand slam and Ellsbury stroked an inside-the-park home run in which he scurried around the bases in about 5.7 seconds and the Red Sox kept hitting the ball off the Green Monster. Red Sox Nation went home a little less nervous and a lot more confident knowing Rick VandenHurk starts Tuesday for the Orioles.

As for Crawford, it meant he wasn’t the story and wouldn’t have to duck reporters for the third straight day. It meant fans wouldn’t have another excuse to question why he wasn’t in the lineup or wonder why he’s hitting .255 with a .292 on-base percentage and just 18 steals in his first season after signing his seven-year, $142 million contract.

A Red Sox friend of mine always argues that playing for the Red Sox or Yankees is different, that there’s more pressure playing for those teams, and certain players just can’t handle that pressure. I always disagree, arguing that it’s still baseball, that once players cross the baselines, they can put the distractions of the media or the intensity of the fans behind them and just play the game they’ve played since they were 6 years old. My argument is that Red Sox and Yankees fans want to believe in this theory, because it makes them feel special, that playing for their team requires a certain amount of intestinal fortitude. The media, of course, love to encourage this theory as well, because it makes them develop a sense of self-importance, as if they have the ability to influence player performance.

And here’s what happens: Crawford has a bad year and the theory is validated. You can’t debate that Crawford has failed to live up his contract: From 2004 (his first good season) through 2010, he hit .301/.344/.461 with the Rays, topping .300 five times in those seven seasons. He was coming off the best season of his career, setting highs in OPS, slugging percentage, home runs and runs scored. He’d won a Gold Glove and finished seventh in the AL MVP vote. He was a star and at age 29 was in the prime of his career.

Then he hit .155 in April and it’s been an uphill battle all season. Crawford has written a diary for ESPNBoston.com and in his entry posted Sunday, he wrote, “As far as my game is going, I'm just trying to grind it out the rest of the season. I've felt a little bit better, but it just doesn't feel the same as I normally feel. I'm trying to do everything I can to do something positive whenever I get a chance to.”

Is it the nagging injuries? The pressure? Or just a bad season? After all, his .694 OPS isn’t much lower than the .718 OPS he posted in 2008. Crawford isn’t a great hitter; he’s too much of a free swinger and he’s never topped 20 home runs. He’s a good hitter and good hitters can have mediocre seasons. And now that he’s turned 30, maybe the good seasons become mediocre ones and the mediocre ones become bad ones. Maybe Boston’s $142 million left fielder will prove to be just an expensive version of Troy O’Leary.

In his diary, Crawford said he’d be devastated if the Rays caught the Sox. He also took the odd tact of apologizing to Red Sox fans, saying, “I just want to say I'm sorry for the year I've had. You guys have been really supportive and I appreciate that. Hopefully when we get into these playoffs, I can be the real Carl Crawford that I know I am. We'll see.”

We’ll see. Not exactly the confident swagger of the guy who signed the 11th-most lucrative contract in baseball history.

But here’s the great thing about this game: It’s been a disappointing season for Crawford. But he has eight games left in the regular season and perhaps more in October to redeem himself. A few big hits, a clutch play in the field, a stolen base that leads to the winning run … and all will be forgiven.

We’ll see. Can he do it?