- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Hours before he made his 2012 debut, Carl Crawford acknowledged Monday what was readily apparent to anyone who watched him struggle through his first season with the Red Sox. He placed too much pressure on himself, and by the end of the season, his confidence was shot.
He said he hopes to avoid a similar outcome this season.
"I'll try not to put pressure on myself like I did last year," Crawford said in a pregame media session in the Red Sox interview room. "I'll try to relax a little bit more. I understand what I need to do, understand what my game is and how I can help the team out and stick to that."
After grounding a base hit in his first at-bat, walking and scoring two runs in Boston's 5-1 win over the Chicago White Sox Monday night, Crawford hoped he was trending in that direction.
"It definitely helps," he said of his single up the middle in the first inning, which resulted in a run when David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez followed with base hits off White Sox starter Dylan Axelrod. "It helps you relax a little bit more and not worry about it so much. It kind of reminds you that you can still do it. That was good to get that knock out of the way."
It will take more than one game, of course, for Crawford to show whether he can avoid the pressure trap this season. Touted as a "game-changer" when he signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox as a free agent, Crawford got off to a slow start in 2011, with just four singles in his first 28 at-bats (.143 average).
He was soon relegated to the bottom third of the batting order and sputtered all season, while never looking comfortable in his new surroundings.
"Last year I think I lost a lot of confidence in myself," he said. "This year I was able to get that back. Just not reading much stuff, not watching so much TV, when so much negative stuff is being said about you. You just kind of put that stuff behind you, go out there and have confidence in yourself, believe in yourself. That's pretty much it."
Crawford missed the first 89 games of the season with wrist and elbow injuries. He underwent wrist surgery in January, then sprained the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow during spring training.
To make room for Crawford, utility man Brent Lillibridge was designated for assignment.
Crawford reacted positively to being slotted second in the order Monday, his customary spot when he was with Tampa Bay, though it remains to be seen what manager Bobby Valentine will do when Dustin Pedroia comes off the disabled list, which could be as soon as Thursday.
"There (No. 2) I can run as much as I want," he said. "Last year I was limited what I could do. Now I can take off whenever I want, make the defense nervous, put pressure on them, make them think about me more than the hitter sometimes. So I can basically do what I want to do."
Crawford did not attempt to steal a base Monday, but did go first to third on Ortiz's single in the first. Valentine also praised him for a "professional" at-bat in the eighth, when he worked a leadoff walk off White Sox lefty reliever Leyson Septimo with the score tied at 1.
While Crawford is hopeful of easing the pressure valve, he not only is faced with trying to demonstrate to a skeptical fan base that he is much better than he showed last season, but doing so while rebounding from one injury and nursing another.
"I don't know if I have to prove something," he said, "but I definitely want to prove to myself that I can still play this game at a high level and contribute to this team, try to play and help the team win."
Crawford said he was not as nervous as he expected he would be Monday night. "It actually felt kind of comfortable for me," he said. "I was glad to feel that way instead of feeling so nerved up."
He said he is not preoccupied with the possibility that he could blow out his arm on a single throw. He plans to focus on hitting the cutoff man most of the time. The Sox worked all spring on their infielders going farther out in the outfield for the benefit of Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury, neither one of whom has a strong throwing arm. Crawford was replaced by Daniel Nava, who has a stronger arm, after batting in the eighth.
"If something happens with my arm, it happens," he said. "I'm not going to worry about it. ... Right now when I take the field, I'm not worried about my elbow, I'm not worried about my legs, I'm not worried about nothing."
His intention, he said, is to do "just what I normally do. A little speed, play some defense, get back to the things I normally did."
His swing isn't exactly where he'd like it to be, which could make for a slow start "or I might jump right in and do OK."
Last weekend, during his final tuneup with Triple-A Pawtucket, Crawford told reporters he felt "pressure" from Red Sox management and the fans to return to the field. For that reason, he said, he pledged to come back Monday, even if he wasn't completely ready.
"This is the Red Sox," Crawford said. "They want the best team out there. They want to see everybody out there. I understand that I'm a big part of the puzzle that was supposed to help them win a championship. I want to get back out there and try to help.
"I'm looking at it that way. I want to get out there as fast as I can."
ESPNBoston.com's Bill Humphrey contributed to this report.