BOSTON-Carl Crawford has long been the face of the franchise for the Rays, normally a good thing for a talented young player. That wasn’t necessarily such a good thing until very recently, however, since the team had been the laughingstock of baseball since playing their first game as an expansion team in 1998.

The Rays lost at least 91 games in each of their first 10 seasons until this year, so when Crawford suffered a torn tendon in his left middle finger while checking a swing in the August 9 game in Seattle during what has become a magical season for the Rays, the 27-year-old felt like a little kid who had just found out that Christmas had been canceled. He was devastated. “My first thought was we’re finally have a good year, finally in the pennant race, finally going to the playoffs, and I’m going to miss all it,” Crawford said. “I couldn’t believe it. I had never had a serious injury in my career before, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was very, very tough to take.”

When Crawford, who had played in at least 143 games in each of his five major league seasons, had surgery on August 14, doctors told him that he had an outside chance of being able to play in the postseason. He became obsessed with making it back to the active roster before the regular season ended. He pushed his rehabilitation to the limit, and made it back in time to pinch run on September 26 and play the field on the last day of the season, September 28. He did well enough to convince the Rays to put him on the post-season roster. “I worked as hard as I possibly could, because there was no way I was going to miss out on the playoffs,” Crawford said.

That hard work paid off on Tuesday night, as the Rays moved within one game of getting to the World Series by pasting the defending champion Red Sox 13-4 in Game Four of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park. Crawford paced the Rays’ 14-hit attack by going 5-for-5 with two doubles, a triple, three runs scored, two RBI, and two stolen bases. It was a magical night for someone who had suffered through bushels-full of losing. Crawford’s five hits tied the LCS record, set by the OriolesPaul Blair in the first ALCS in 1969 against the Twins, and matched by the YankeesHideki Matsui in the 2004 ALCS against the Red Sox.

Even after achieving that kind of glory, Crawford mused about the team’s luckless past. “There were some tough times, a lot of tough times actually,” Crawford said. “You would definitely dream of being in this position and hoping to be in this position, but it was hard to envision it actually happening. To be in the position we are now, one win away from the World Series, is a surprise. I really wondered if something like this would ever happen. At the same time, with the guys we have now, we’re very capable of doing what we’ve been doing in this series.”

“I love it that Carl had his night tonight, and I did really latch onto that internally,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I was really thinking about that. I really wanted him to get that last hit. I’m not into stats all the time. I’m not a symbolic kind of person, but I really liked what he did, for him and us. He has grinded through some pretty difficult moments, and right now he’s playing as well as he’s played all year. He’s having great at-bats, stealing bases, playing the outfield like he can. These are the things Carl Crawford has been doing for many years.”

Crawford long did those things in relative obscurity, and the irony of this playoff run is that he has been overshadowed by teammates such as center fielder B.J. Upton and third baseman Evan Longoria, whose post-season home-run feats are unprecedented for such young players. Both 24-year-olds have five homers, and Longoria’s first-inning blast off of Tim Wakefield set a post-season record for rookies, breaking the mark of four by Miguel Cabrera with the 2003 Marlins. Crawford hardly minds. “I’d rather be one of a number of good players on a playoff team than an All-Star on a bad team,” Crawford said. “I’m just a piece of a bigger puzzle now.” Crawford has gone 9-for-18 (.500) in the ALCS after a 3-for-14 performance in the ALDS win over the White Sox. “I feel like I’m just really getting comfortable again with my swing,” Crawford said.

All of the Rays’ hitters have seemed extremely comfortable in winning three straight games in the ALCS, after being shut out on four hits by Daisuke Matsuzaka and two relievers in Game One. The Rays have scored 31 runs on 39 hits and belted 10 home runs in the last three games since Matsuzaka took a no-hitter into the seventh inning that Crawford broke up with a leadoff single, and are the first team to score at least nine runs in three consecutive LCS games.

Crawford was just one of many Game Four heroes as the Rays built an 11-1 lead by the sixth inning. Designated hitter Willy Aybar had four hits, including a home run, and a career-high five RBI, and first baseman Carlos Pena scored three runs and belted a two-run home run in the first inning. Pena’s homer was followed by a Longoria solo shot, giving the Rays a 3-0 lead. Aybar’s two-run homer cleared the Green Monster in left field (as did the two first-inning shots) and made it 5-0, and Wakefield was lifted after Dioner Navarro followed with a single. Wakefield was tagged for five runs and six hits in 2 2/3 innings, and has now gone 0-3 with a 10.47 ERA in his last four post-season starts, dating back to Game One of the 2004 World Series.

Meanwhile, Rays right-hander Andy Sonnanstine turned in a fine 7 1/3-inning performance for the victory, giving up four runs, three earned, and six hits. Sonnanstine seemed more impressed by the work of his teammates than his performance. “For me, it was awesome to see our guys collecting all those hits,” Sonnanstine said. “Before I even threw my first pitch, I was already off to a 3-0 lead. It’s exciting every time I’ve got to get up in the dugout and go slap hands with the guys who just scored, and I did that quite a bit tonight. I was real happy about that.”

There was no joy in the Red Sox dugout, as they were pounded for the second straight game at home after losing 9-1 in Game Three on Monday. One of the few highlights for the Red Sox came when Kevin Cash, the knuckleballing Wakefield’s personal catcher, became the third player in franchise history to hit a home run in his first post-season at-bat, joining pitcher Jose Santiago (who connected against the Cardinals in Game One of the 1967 World Series) and Todd Walker (who went deep against the Athletics in Game One of the 2003 ALDS). Designated hitter David Ortiz got his first hit of the series with a triple in the seventh inning, but his streak of consecutive post-season at-bats without a home run reached 57. “It was a tough night,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “Sitting through that wasn’t a whole lot of fun. When it happens to you, you’ve got to get through it the best you can, and we’ll need to regroup as quickly as we can.”

There is an offday in the series today, though the Red Sox will hold a light workout at Fenway to prepare for Game Five on Thursday night, when Matsuzaka will face James Shields. The Red Sox have been known for their improbable October comebacks; they are the only franchise ever to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win the ALCS, doing so in 1986 against the Angels, in 2004 against Yankees, and again in 2007 against the Indians. Last October, they beat Indians ace CC Sabathia in Cleveland in Game Five, and then won Games Six and Seven at Fenway before going on to sweep the Rockies in the World Series. The Red Sox made history in 2004, Francona’s first season as manager, when they were the first team ever to rally from a 3-0 deficit in the postseason when they beat the Yankees in the ALCS, going on to sweep the Cardinals in the World Series to end their infamous 86-year title drought and eradicate the Curse of the Bambino.

Francona said that the Red Sox will follow the same formula that allowed them to come back the last two times. “Rather than burden ourselves with what we look like four days from now, we’ll set our sights on our next game, and come back Thursday night with the idea that after the game we’re flying to Tampa [for Game Six, scheduled for Saturday night at Tropicana Field],” Francona said. “I think that’s the best way to go about it.”

Maddon feels that whatever the Red Sox may have done in 2004 and 2007 is irrelevant in 2008. “It’s a whole different circumstance right now, and I don’t want to compare it to a past experience,” Maddon said. “I know a lot of times in these moments you’re going to draw parallels and comparisons, but every situation is unique unto itself. I prefer us to continue playing our games and not worry about what’s happened in the past.”

The Rays’ past has been quite ugly, as Crawford can attest to, which is why his teammates were so thrilled that he played such a big role in putting them on the brink of the World Series. “We’re all so happy for C.C.,” Pena said. “We were all pulling for him to heal fast and get back in time for the playoffs. For everything he has meant to this franchise, it just wouldn’t have been right for him to have to sit and watch this from the dugout. He’s back, and he’s playing a key role for us, and everyone on this team draws strength from having him in the lineup.”