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Barry M. Bloom

Early signs show Crawford feeling at home in LA

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SAN DIEGO -- With the two most troubling years of his Major League career in Boston just behind him, Carl Crawford says he's again enjoying playing the game he loves.

"It's definitely fun," the Dodgers' left fielder said this week as his new club finished a three-game series against the Padres on Thursday night at Petco Park. "Everything is good for me right now."

The Dodgers had to take Crawford and what was remaining of his seven-year, $142 million contract in a multi-player deal with the Red Sox this past Aug. 25 if they wanted to obtain first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Crawford was on the disabled list recuperating from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow and couldn't help the Dodgers during their stretch run.

In fact, no one knew at the time how much Crawford had left in him, although his .464 (13-for-28) start indicates he's capable of returning to his old Gold Glove, All-Star form. Regardless, the Dodgers wanted Gonzalez, a Mexican-American who grew up in San Diego and an All-Star, so they made the deal that also included right-hander Josh Beckett and utility infielder Nick Punto.

In doing so, they agreed to absorb what, beginning with this season, is about $344 million worth of contracts, including A-Gon's deal that lasts through 2018. But if Crawford continues to play the way he's playing, he'll be an absolute bonus to the deal.

"I think we knew what we were getting," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who for years watched Crawford play for the Rays over in the American League when he was a coach with the Yankees. "He's in too good a shape. Seeing Carl long enough, I'm really not surprised. We all knew that that situation [in Boston] went bad and it wasn't the best place for Carl. I wanted to quietly keep my exuberance down, but I was expecting a lot. We knew this would be a good place for Carl."

Crawford has five seasons and $106.9 million remaining on his mega-contract and the Dodgers are now starting to be rewarded. He looks more like the kid who starred for the Rays than the one who melted under the hot lights of Fenway Park.

The past two seasons with the Red Sox, Crawford played in only 161 games, batting .260 with 14 homers, 75 RBIs and 23 stolen bases. He was booed incessantly, played for two managers and was blamed for much of that club's ills. Now that he's starting to make his way back, he doesn't feel he has anything to prove.

"I [do] feel more like the guy that was in Tampa," he said. "I just want to play baseball good. That's all I want to do. I don't want to prove nothing to me, to you, to Boston, to [whomever]. I just want to play good baseball, that's it."

At 31, he showed on Wednesday night that he still has the same speed and the same pop after his leadoff homer, triple and two runs scored paced the Dodgers in a 4-3 victory over the Padres. A left-handed hitter, his first homer as a Dodger was a line shot the opposite way off southpaw Eric Stults that landed in the front row of the left-field seats and fled the ballpark in the blink of an eye. His opposite-field triple split the outfielders and rolled to the wall in left-center. As he sped around second, Crawford turned on the after-burners.

Right now, the only concession to his improving condition was made by Mattingly, who lifted Crawford in the eighth inning for Skip Schumaker, a defensive replacement. As fate would have it, the Padres had runners on first and second with two outs in the inning when pinch-hitter Mark Kotsay lifted a bloop toward the left-field line. Schumaker was shaded to his left against the left-handed hitter and broke late on the ball, skidding at the last moment to make what turned out to be a game-saving catch.

Mattingly said he was confident that Crawford would have also made the play. But he replaced Crawford because of a lingering question about his throwing arm. It's a situation Crawford hopes to alleviate in the near future.

"My body, my elbow, they're getting better by the day," he said. "I hope by the end of the month I won't get pulled in the seventh or eighth inning."

That time is certainly near, Mattingly said on Thursday, adding that the Dodgers' medical personnel noted that Crawford should be ready to throw at 100 percent by early May.

"The time is coming when he's going to be able to go full bore," Mattingly said. "He's not a guy that I really want to take out for defense anyway. But when you're in a close game, you want to know that you're going to get a competitive throw. As he keeps going, his arm is getting stronger and stronger all the time."

It wasn't so long ago that Crawford was one of the most coveted players on the free-agent market. After nine years in Tampa Bay -- that included a 2008 World Series loss to the Phillies -- the Rays made it clear after the 2010 season that they couldn't match whatever money Crawford was seeking on the open market.

At the Winter Meetings that offseason in Florida, the rumor mill had Crawford signed, sealed and delivered to the Angels. But after making a key trade with the Padres for Gonzalez, Boston stepped up and gave Crawford a deal that was too tough for him to refuse. The Red Sox opened 2012 at 2-10 as Crawford struggled at the plate. The bad feelings were fueled by a September collapse for the ages. By the end of that season both sides decried the contract as a huge mistake.

Early this past Spring Training as he built stamina in his return to the Dodgers, Crawford said his mistake was not doing enough "homework" about the Red Sox before signing the contract. As he injured his elbow and the malaise there deepened, Crawford told CBSsports.com that his problems were compounded by the Boston media.

"I think they want to see [players upset] in Boston," Crawford said of the media there. "They love it when you're miserable. Burying people in the media, they think that makes a person play better. That media was the worst thing I've ever experienced in my life."

The Los Angeles media seem to be allowing Crawford the space to regain his former stature. And if that occurs, the deal for Crawford and A-Gon could become one of the most heralded ever made by the Dodgers.

"You never know how it's going to go. You hope for the best," he said. "The way the last few years have gone for me, it was a bit of a surprise. I'm just making sure I'm ready, making sure my body feels the way I want it to feel, making sure I have the proper amount of hacks I need."

And he's also making sure he's having some fun for a change.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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