LOS ANGELES -- Carl Crawford can't quite explain it, and probably doesn't want to stop to think about it. Why would he?
After almost three seasons down baseball's rabbit hole, bedeviled both by the expectations that followed signing a $142 million contract and what has seemed like a gazillion injuries, big and small, he has rediscovered himself as a player, and it couldn't have happened at a better time for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Crawford, at 32 still the same player who helped Tampa Bay become a factor in the American League East, blasted a 96-mph fastball from St. Louis' Joe Kelly for a solo home run in the fifth inning of the Dodgers' 6-4 victory on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium.
His fourth home run of the playoffs was a no-doubter, launched halfway up the right-field bleachers. The second of four solo homers for Don Mattingly's team, including two from the clowning Adrian Gonzalez, it helped send the National League Championship Series back to Busch Stadium for a sixth game.
Two more wins, and Crawford will be back in the World Series, hoping for a different outcome than he got with Tampa Bay in 2008. There's a chance that he could be introduced on the third-base line at Fenway Park, where Red Sox fans would be likely to give him the Roger Clemens treatment after he produced so little in his season and a half in Boston.
"As far as the Red Sox, I'm watching both [them and the Detroit Tigers] play," Crawford said. "[I'm] monitoring them real closely. I have to worry about the Cardinals right now though. I can't really worry about what's going on in the other games. I mean, I watch them, but the Cardinals have my main focus."
Crawford was among the Dodgers' many questions heading toward the NL Division Series. But as general manager Ned Colletti and Mattingly ruled out Matt Kemp and held their breath about the gimpy Andre Ethier, they saw some reason for hope with Crawford.
He not only went 8-for-20 in the last week of the season, but on back-to-back days, he delivered his first triple since May 30 and his first home run since May 6. It was his only homer in 226 second-half at-bats.
Carl crushing in the clutch
|2. (tie)||Carl Crawford||2013||4|
|2. (tie)||Manny Ramirez||2008||4|
|2. (tie)||Pedro Guerrero||1981||4|
|2. (tie)||Steve Garvey||1978||4|
|2. (tie)||Duke Snider||1955||4|
|2. (tie)||Duke Snider||1952||4|
"Well, I just started feeling better towards the end of the year," said Crawford, who finished the regular season batting .283 with six home runs, 31 RBIs and 15 stolen bases in 116 games. "Luckily the body felt good, the swing started to feel better, so that enabled me to look for some pitches to drive. Just kind of found the stroke that I'm comfortable with, and it's been working for me."
Yes, it is.
Crawford has at least one hit in all nine of the Dodgers' playoff games, including a two-homer game off Freddy Garcia that helped eliminate the Braves. He's hitting .308 with a .982 OPS, very impressive numbers given the way pitching has dominated in October.
Mattingly says Crawford's athleticism has taken over since he became comfortable that his body would hold up after a season-long battle with hamstring and back issues, with a trip to the emergency room for a high-fever tossed in at no extra cost.
"The last week of the season he started running for us," Mattingly said. "I think it was like he had a bunch of little stuff during the course of the year, back a couple different times, a couple of different stints with a couple slight hamstrings that kind of slowed him down. ... That last week of the season it seemed like he kind of decided that he needed to go, and he started stealing some bags late in the year. Then he's kind of been on the home run tear through the playoffs. ... He's been on a little bit of a run here in the playoffs, and it's been good to have him up top there and doing that for us."
Kelly fell behind Crawford 3-0 in the fifth inning before throwing him with a 3-2 fastball. It's fair to say that the Cardinals weren't planning to challenge him.
"As we try to get guys out, we know we make good pitches and we have a good chance of getting them out," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "We get behind in counts and get balls in the middle of the plate and bad things happen for us."
If the Dodgers can duplicate the 2012 Giants and rally from a 3-1 hole to the Cardinals in the NLCS, it will create a delicious scenario to see a World Series played between the historic teams that made the staggering trade after less than 14 months ago. That is, assuming the Red Sox can outlast the Tigers in the ALCS.
Dodgers GM Ned Colletti says it was Gonzalez who was on his mind when he first approached the Red Sox about a possible trade, with those talks starting shortly after Opening Day, 2012.
|Adrian Gonzalez||Cardinals||10/15/2013||NLCS 5||2|
|Carl Crawford||Braves||10/7/2013||NLDS 4||2|
|Shawn Green||Cardinals||10/9/2004||NLDS 3||2|
|Eric Karros||Reds||10/4/1995||NLDS 2||2|
|Davey Lopes||Yankees||10/10/1978||WS 1||2|
|Steve Garvey||Phillies||10/4/1978||NLCS 1||2|
|Steve Garvey||Pirates||10/9/1974||NLCS 4||2|
|Charlie Neal||White Sox||10/2/1959||WS 2||2|
|Duke Snider||Yankees||10/2/1955||WS 5||2|
|Duke Snider||Yankees||10/6/1952||WS 6||2|
"We had talked to Boston about Adrian Gonzalez in April, but we had no idea that was going to start the ball rolling to this," Colletti said. "It was a very, very rare opportunity to add multiple impact players in one deal, and our ownership had been very clear about being aggressive."
With the Red Sox looking to clear payroll, Josh Beckett and Crawford accompanied Gonzalez to Los Angeles in the mega-deal. One Dodgers official said the three were so beaten up after the first four months of 2012 in Boston that they arrived in Los Angeles looked like the three-man band in Archibald Willard's classic "Spirit of '76'' painting.
Crawford had been such a disappointment with the Red Sox that some say there would have been no deal if the Dodgers didn't agree to take him. It would be great drama to see him return to take on the team that traded him less than two years into a seven-year contract.
"A few years ago, Carl was a free agent and he was probably one of the most sought-after guys in baseball from the things he was able to do," Mattingly said. "He goes to Boston. Doesn't seem like a good fit. He gets hurt and misses a lot of games. All of a sudden, you become a bad guy. So Carl coming here, I think, is a little relief for him to be able to come out here, just come play."
Not that it's been all smooth sailing at Chavez Ravine.
"It's still been a little bit of a rough year, I think, from the standpoint of some injuries and things like that," Mattingly said. "But this postseason has helped Carl shine and show what he can do."
Crawford will be the first batter to the plate on Friday against the steam-rolling rookie, Michael Wacha. You get the feeling he can't wait to feel the dirt under his spikes.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.