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TON -- Carl Crawford was back in the Red Sox lineup for the first time in over nine months Monday night, and the left fielder provided an immediate impact after returning from an elbow injury that robbed him of much of the 2012 season.
It's been a long journey back to the big league stage for Crawford, who came off the disabled list prior to Monday's series opener against the White Sox. He had offseason surgery on his left wrist and then injured his left elbow during his rehab. That combination forced him to alter his throwing motion.
But Crawford was back at home in left field Monday night at Fenway Park, batting second in Bobby Valentine's lineup. In his first home game since Sept. 21, 2011, Crawford went 1-for-3 with a walk and two runs scored to help Boston to a 5-1 win.
"It felt good to be back on the field, it's been a while, so it was a real nice feeling," he said. "Real nice, you know, to play for the win like that, be able to help and do something important and at the end of the day, we got the win, so I definitely feel good about today."
Crawford started Boston's game-winning, eighth-inning rally with a leadoff walk and scored on a three-run homer from Adrian Gonzalez. Crawford looked comfortable at the plate, despite not facing Major League pitching for over nine months.
"It feels good to be able to see pitches," Crawford said. "Last year, I think that was the area I struggled in, so to be able to notice pitches real quick and to be able to be a little better at it is definitely comforting for me."
The Houston native didn't waste any time putting his stamp on the game. He singled up the middle in his first at-bat and later scored in the inning to tie the game at 1.
"I never started the season off with a base hit, so that did a lot for me," he said. "So I was happy to start the game off that way. It definitely helps, 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. So it was good to get that knock out of the way."
To make room for Crawford on the active roster, the Red Sox designated utility man Brent Lillibridge for assignment.
Crawford is the second outfielder to rejoin the Red Sox after the All-Star break. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury returned Friday after missing three months with a separated shoulder. Finally, Boston's outfield is starting to take shape after months of mixing and matching.
"Ellsbury came back and Crawford is back in the lineup -- that's something that we need for the second half of the season," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who also walked to set up Gonzalez's heroics before injuring his right Achilles rounding the bases.
Crawford had a down year in 2011, his first season in Boston, hitting .255 with 11 home runs and 56 RBIs in 130 games. He put a lot of pressure on himself last year after signing a seven-year, $142 million contract and wants to put that behind him now.
"This year, I want to not put as much pressure on myself as I did last year," Crawford said. "I'm just going to try to relax a little bit more and understand what I need to do, understand what my game is and how I can help the team out, and stick to that."
Valentine also wants Crawford to play relaxed and won't hesitate to offer his advice.
"We'll see as situations develop how I could get him feeling less of whatever he felt last year and maybe more of something else," Valentine said.
Still, Crawford thinks he's learned from a disappointing 2011 campaign.
"Last year, I think I lost a lot of confidence in myself," he said. "This year, I was able to get that back, not reading so much stuff and watching so much TV where you have so much negative stuff about you being said. You have to kind of put that stuff behind you, go in, have confidence in yourself and believe in yourself. That's pretty much it."
If Crawford can return to the form he showed with the Tampa Bay Rays, when he was selected to four All-Star teams, he could help spark the 45-44 Red Sox.
"It could be a huge addition," said infielder Nick Punto. "Carl has been out all season and we definitely need his electricity at the top of the order and hopefully he gets off running right away."
With Ellsbury in the leadoff spot followed by Crawford, Boston has some added speed on the bases. The duo has more freedom to steal this year than in previous seasons under former manager Terry Francona.
"I can run as much as I want," said Crawford, who stole 60 bases in 2009 for the Rays. "Last year, I was limited to what I could do. Now I have the option to take off whenever I want to run, make the defense nervous, put pressure on them, make them think about me more than the hitter sometimes. I can basically do what I want to do."
But baserunning and hitting don't require Crawford to test his elbow, which is still not 100 percent. He tries not to think about the elbow, which limits some of his deeper throws from the outfield.
"I don't know when the elbow will stop hurting fully, but at this point, I feel like I'm in a good place where I can just go out and play baseball," Crawford said. "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 but playing the game. That's a big step for me."
Despite all the setbacks along the way, Crawford thinks he has come out of it a better player.
"It's been really frustrating for me," he said. "I've had to stay strong mentally, basically. I can take care of the physical part. But mentally, I broke down a little bit. I think I'm in a good place now, understand some things better, and having that approach I think will help me out a lot this year."
Crawford's arm wasn't tested on Monday night. His only action was catching a fly ball to end the seventh inning.