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It all starts with sparkplug Crawford

It all starts with sparkplug Crawford

BOSTON -- It now seems like ages ago that Carl Crawford punched out the Rays' first hit of this American League Championship Series. Never mind that it was seven innings into the series opener, breaking up Daisuke Matsuzaka's no-hit bid with a simple ground ball pulled through the right side.

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"Just tried to get something started," Crawford said. "I was leading off the inning and just tried to have a good at-bat -- got a pitch I could handle and got the base hit."

Four days, 10 homers and nearly 30 runs later, Crawford stepped to the plate in the eighth inning of Game 4 Tuesday night, this time with a runner on and one out. He got another pitch to handle and pulled another ball. This one, however, went all the way to right field, off J.D. Drew's glove for an RBI single that pushed the Rays' run total to an even dozen before Willy Aybar drove him in.

It was Crawford's fifth hit of the night, and it left him a home run shy of the cycle. Yet to hear the Rays explain their sudden outburst, it was the same approach.

"We've been good at staying within ourselves and staying with the approach," Pena said. "In fact, we're trying to keep things as simple as possible."

As a result, they've done what seemed impossible for this franchise -- not just in its history, but in this series.

The team that came within nine outs of suffering the first no-hitter in LCS history is now the first team in LCS history to score at least nine runs in three straight games. Just three other teams have done that in any postseason stretch -- the 1998 Yankees and the Red Sox of '99 and 2007.

All three of those clubs were known for some level of offensive firepower, some more than others. The Rays finished ninth in the AL in scoring in the regular season and had the AL's second-lowest batting average. They're also playing the defending world champions.

Thanks in no small part to 31 runs in the last three games, Tampa Bay is a win away from eliminating the champs and punching their ticket to the World Series.

They're the paradox of the postseason, but to Crawford, it's pretty simple.

Most homers in first playoff appearance
Team
Year
Games
Homers
Rays
2008
8
16
Mariners
1995
11
16
Marlins
1997
16
13
"I think the guys really want this," he said. "We're so close. We're right there. So whatever happens in the past doesn't really matter anymore to us right now. If we can get things going for us right now, things will be fine. Whatever happened in the regular season seems to not matter in the playoffs."

To be fair, the Rays had their share of success against the Red Sox in the regular season. They won the season series, after all. But they rarely won like this, on the strength of offensive firepower.

It was on full display Tuesday against Tim Wakefield, the knuckleballer who once dominated this team until this year. Tampa Bay's first hit of the night was a two-run homer from Pena, putting the Rays in front three batters into the game.

Two pitches later, Evan Longoria followed with another drive of a hanging knuckleball that cleared the Green Monster in left, his fifth home run in these playoffs. His third home run in his last three games pushed him out of a tie with Miguel Cabrera for the most homers by a rookie in a postseason.

"When you have a guy like Wakefield out there, we know how nasty he can be," Pena said. "That ball's moving like crazy when he throws it. And sure enough, when I went up for my first at-bat, those first two pitches I saw moved a lot. So I was reminded even more of the fact that you have to stay small, don't try to do too much. And sure enough, when you do that, good things happen.

"I was able to get a pitch in the zone and put the barrel on it. Next thing you know, home run. And Longoria does it. Now we're up, 3-0. But to think that we went up there trying to do that is not true. We were trying to have good at-bats, just keep it simple and stick to the basics."

Manager Joe Maddon understandably likes the approach, the disciplined strike zone. But he also believes having Crawford back in the lineup makes a difference, especially batting fifth behind Longoria after missing most of August and September following surgery to repair a finger tendon in his right hand.

Evan Longoria's playoff stats
Game
AB
R
H
HR
RBI
BB
SO
LOB
DS Gm 1
3
2
3
2
3
1
0
0
DS Gm 2
4
0
1
0
0
0
2
2
DS Gm 3
3
0
0
0
0
1
1
3
DS Gm 4
5
0
0
0
0
0
3
6
CS Gm 1
4
0
0
0
0
0
2
5
CS Gm 2
5
3
3
1
3
0
0
0
CS Gm 3
4
2
1
1
1
1
1
2
CS Gm 4
4
2
1
1
2
1
1
1
Total
32
9
9
5
9
4
10
19
Originally feared lost for the season, Crawford worked his way back ahead of schedule and proved to Maddon he was ready for the postseason by taking at-bats in instructional ball. He wasn't going to miss this run if he could help it.

"I've been here through a lot of the tough times," Crawford said, "and things started to get well and guys made it to the playoffs, and I wanted to be a part of it -- not only just be a part of it, I wanted to contribute and help the guys win in the playoffs."

Tuesday was proof for what he can do in this lineup.

"I'm not a symbolic kind of person," Maddon said, "but I really liked what he did tonight, for him and for us."

Crawford went to work on the next pitch after Longoria's homer, pulling a line drive into the right-field corner for a double before stealing third. He was left stranded, but he crossed the plate in three of his next four at-bats.

His speed helped him to a third-inning single and a stolen base before Aybar's homer allowed him to trot home. A fifth-inning double off the base of the Green Monster against Justin Masterson turned into another Aybar RBI.

An inning later, he greeted sidearming lefty Javier Lopez with a bloop single and an RBI. The triple was his exclamation point.

"Just every at-bat, you're trying to concentrate and get a base hit," Crawford said, "try not to do too much, trying to get on base so I could use my speed, and I was able to find the hole tonight. Just trying to help the team out any way I can."

Four days after he helped the Rays with their first hit, they're a win away from their first World Series berth. And the offense is helping itself to a feast.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["league_championship_series" ] }
{"content":["league_championship_series" ] }