ST. PETERSBURG — Getting the chocolate whipped cream, applied oh-so-expertly by David Price in a postgame facial, out of his eyes and ears was about the only thing James Shields really had trouble with Tuesday night.
Otherwise, Shields pretty much had his way, shutting down and shutting out the red-hot Red Sox and returning Carl Crawford with a five-hit complete game to lead the Rays to a 4-0 victory.
"That was one of my better games, that's for sure," Shields said. "No doubt about it as far as the magnitude goes."
It was Shields' major league-leading third shutout and American League-high fourth complete game in his remarkable bounce-back season and furthered his bid for a spot on the All-Star team with a 6-4, 2.60 record.
More importantly, it gave the Rays a victory in the opener of a three-game series that clearly means a lot to them based on what they did leading up to it, shuffling their rotation so Shields pitched Tuesday, and what they said.
"I think this was a big game for us," said Shields, who threw 110 pitches. "I knew going into the series it was going to be a big series."
His weary teammates — who improved to 36-31 and moved within 3½ games of the division-leading Red Sox — gave him what help he needed before a crowd of just 20,972.
Justin Ruggiano — one of the five replacements for Crawford the Rays have tried in leftfield — continued his inspired play with a homer and a pair of big catches. Evan Longoria helped manufacture a pair of runs, and Casey Kotchman and John Jaso each knocked one in. There was the usual assortment of dazzling defense, including three double plays.
It was an impressive effort for a Rays team coming off a grueling 11-game, 12-day country-crossing road trip that ended with a controversial walkoff loss in Detroit on Monday night and an arrival home around 4 a.m. It was even more so against a Red Sox team coming in on a nine-game winning streak — having scored 35 runs during their weekend in Toronto — and having enjoyed a leisurely off day Monday in Tampa.
"Coming off what we just went through, to come home tonight with short rest again and play that kind of game with that kind of energy, I'm really proud of our guys," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
And, apparently, inspirational.
"Yes, we are the defending American League East champs," Maddon said. "We plan on defending it and recapturing the flag again. Don't let anybody think anything differently."
The build-up to the game focused on longtime Rays star Crawford's return. There was a lot he admitted he wasn't sure about, such as how he'd feel (a bit abnormal), how he'd do (0-for-3) and how he'd be received by the Tropicana Field crowd (mostly cheers, but some boos). "It was cool," he said. "I guess it was mixed emotions out there."
What Crawford was certain of was that Shields was going to stand tall on the mound.
"I know those guys, and whenever the Red Sox are in town, they take it up a notch," Crawford said. "I expected him to pitch one of his better games, and he did."
Two at-bats with Crawford were huge moments in the game. Shields actually got off to a shaky start with a 23-pitch first inning, loading the bases in the first on two walks and a single, but escaped when Crawford grounded out.
Their seventh-inning encounter was more memorable as Crawford battled through 12 pitches — including eight foul balls — before Shields struck him out.
"He made good pitches on Carl all night long." Maddon said. "He made good pitches on everybody."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.