Crawford enjoying ride while it lasts

Since the 2008 season is a little foggy for those of us with Twittertastic attention spans, I would like to remind you of an important subplot for one postseason entrant:

The greatest year in Tampa Bay Rays history was actually pretty lousy for the franchise’s signature player.

Carl Crawford missed more than 50 games in that storybook season, resulting in a career low in stolen bases. He batted .273, his worst mark since becoming a full-time big-leaguer.

He was bothered throughout the year by a deep bone bruise in his left ankle. Then he injured a ligament in his right hand, requiring a surgical procedure that nearly sidelined him for the postseason.

When the playoffs began, manager Joe Maddon dropped him to fifth in the lineup. And even though he batted .290 in October, Crawford felt as though he had missed an opportunity to show the world what he could do.

“Just a depressing time for me,” the left fielder recalled this week. “It was like I was almost forgotten about.”

I’ll never be confused for an expert prognosticator — I had the Brewers winning their division — but I can promise you this: There is absolutely no chance that Carl Crawford will be “forgotten about” this October.

Or November.

Or December.

In the same way that prospective free agent Carlos Beltran starred for Houston in the 2004 postseason, this should be remembered as the Autumn of Carl.

His five tools — and the associated price tag — will be impossible for baseball fans to ignore for at least the next several months. In fact, most on- or off-the-field storylines between now and New Year’s will have at least an indirect relationship to the following two questions.

1. Will Crawford lead the underdog Rays past the Yankees and bring a World Series title to Tampa Bay?

2. Which team will win the high-stakes bidding for Crawford’s services on the free-agent market?

The second question is speculative and premature, which makes it awfully fun to bat around.

On Monday, I asked David Ortiz for his take. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

“The Yankees,” Big Papi replied. “That’s the team that’s going to pay him. Either the Yankees or Anaheim.”

Big Papi either has some solid sources or subscribes to the same conventional wisdom as many non-uniform-wearers in the industry. Because that’s not the first time I have heard those clubs mentioned.

The upshot, of course, is that a lot of people (including me) would be stunned if Crawford re-signed with the small-market Rays. Two big reasons: They won’t offer the most money, and they play on an artificial surface that isn’t forgiving to players (like Crawford) who slide into bases and tumble in the outfield for a living.

“It’d be nice to play on grass,” Crawford acknowledged. “Turf is hard to play on. But I take good care of my body on the turf. I have to go the extra mile to get ready to play. Compared to turf, (on grass) your body feels like you’re playing on a mattress.

“Guys come in for a two- or three-game series and talk about how bad they feel. Imagine playing 81 games on it.”

Unless he returns to Tampa later in his career, this is probably Crawford’s final chance to win a championship for the franchise he helped make relevant.

To his credit — and the Rays’ — that hasn’t been a distraction. They are simply enjoying one another’s company while they can. The result has been a truly entertaining brand of baseball.

Crawford’s run-scoring and run-stopping explosiveness have made the Rays a virtual lock to win at least the American League wild card. Entering Thursday, they trailed the Yankees by only 2-1/2 games for the AL East lead and No. 1 seed in the playoffs. With seven head-to-head games left, the race is far from over.

Crawford needed to have a big season in 2010 — for himself and his team. And he has delivered. He’s enjoying probably his best all-around offensive year. He made his fourth All-Star team and started for the first time. He could establish a career high in RBIs while also leading the league in triples and swiping 50 bases.

A rare player, indeed.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a guy in the game that’s more exciting,” said Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton.

Rockies fans could state a compelling case for Carlos Gonzalez, but it’s a point well taken.

Consider Crawford’s 4-for-4 performance against the Red Sox on Tuesday night. He doubled to right-center. He doubled to left. He doubled down the right-field line. But his most impressive at-bat might have been the final one, during a six-run, fifth-inning rally.

He fell behind, 0-2, before chopping a two-out, 70-foot single. His speed forced pitcher Dustin Richardson to rush a throw to first base. Error. Pitching change. Two pitches later, Evan Longoria walloped a three-run homer over the Green Monster.

“He can change innings,” Shelton said. “With two strikes, he battles a tough pitch. He puts it in play. They rush. They ball gets thrown away. It’s how he creates runs. He does it in a number of different ways.

“He’s hit second for most of his career, but we put him in the No. 3 hole when we started struggling offensively. It’s catapulted us. He’s probably a No. 2 hitter in an ideal world, but we don’t deal in an ideal world. We lead off a catcher (John Jaso).”

Ironically, the Rays’ woes with men in scoring position offered Crawford a chance to improve his market value. His success as an RBI man will allow his representatives to market him as a star capable of hitting first, second or third in a championship-caliber lineup. In theory, that will expand the field of interested clubs.

As if he needed the boost.

Crawford was already going to be the most-talked-about position player on the open market this winter. (Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth will be popular, too, but he’s older — 31, compared with 29 — and less dynamic.) A number of the wealthiest teams — the Yankees, Angels, Red Sox, Tigers, Giants, Dodgers — could use a player who matches Crawford’s description. Good for Crawford, bad for the Rays.

But ask Crawford now about all the possibilities, all the millions, and he responds with a shrug. He doesn’t know where he will be one year from now. Won’t even hazard a guess.

“It’d be weird to play anywhere besides the Rays,” he said. “I’ve never experienced that. If I ended up anywhere else, it’s going to feel awkward a little bit.

“I don’t know where I’ll be. Hopefully, it’s in a Rays uniform.”

This month and next, at least, we can find him at Tropicana Field. The baseball universe is about to see more of Carl Demonte Crawford than ever before. Lucky for us, he’s entertaining as hell.