ST. PETERSBURG — When the game is recalled, it is always the punch that comes to mind.
The image of James Shields, wearing a grimace but no hat, taking a long, right-handed swing at Coco Crisp, and the Red Sox outfielder ducking backward to somehow avoid contact.
But for the Rays, all these months later, it was the pitch, and not the punch, that actually mattered.
The pitch is what precipitated the brawl. The pitch is what sent the more important message. The pitch is what led to a loss, a bunch of suspensions and a greater sense of trust and affection in the Tampa Bay clubhouse.
"It was what we were supposed to do," reliever Trever Miller said. "We take care of each other."
In case you have forgotten, the underlying cause of Tampa Bay's brawl with the Red Sox in early June was Crisp's cheap shot on Aki Iwamura at second base the night before. Crisp was annoyed that Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett had blocked the base earlier in the game, and he took his frustrations out on Iwamura.
Obviously, there is no manual on how to deal with such a transgression. And there is no one in charge of dispensing justice. It is simply expected that someone hold Crisp accountable.
And, at times, that had been a problem in the Rays clubhouse.
Over the years, Rays hitters have not always felt protected by Tampa Bay pitchers. The point was driven home most publicly in the spring of 2007 when Ty Wigginton yelled at his own dugout after being hit by a pitch.
"I don't know that it was a case of them not protecting us," outfielder Rocco Baldelli said. "I just think we had so many young pitchers, they didn't know how to take care of the situation when it came up."
And so it was that Shields, 26, took the mound on June 5. The Rays had lost two in a row, had fallen out of first place the night before, and Shields had not won a game in nearly a month. And, at that moment, none of it mattered.
On his second pitch to Crisp in the second inning, Shields drilled him in the hip.
The pitch earned Shields an ejection, led to a suspension and took a bite out of both his wallet and stats. And, yet, he didn't hesitate because it was the right thing to do.
"It's old-school baseball. I grew up hearing about guys like Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale, and those guys were animals. Watching them, I learned it's important to protect your teammates at all times," Shields said. "I don't care what my stats are like, I don't care where I am at in my season. It doesn't matter. If I have to protect my players, that's what I'm going to do. And I felt that was a situation where I needed to protect my players right away."
The brawl that followed was a little nastier than the usual baseball fare. It might have simply been circumstance or coincidence, or maybe it was years of pent-up frustration.
"For a long time, they had everything to lose and we didn't. There's no reason for the first-place team to be fighting the last-place team," Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "They didn't want to get hurt messing around with the little kids. Even if we wanted to, there were a lot of times we couldn't have started a fight if we tried."
In a lot of ways, this fight was costly to Tampa Bay. Shields was suspended for six games, Gomes for five, Edwin Jackson for five, Carl Crawford for four and Iwamura for three.
But for all the Rays lost, they say they gained far more.
Much like the brawl with the Yanks in spring training, the Rays believe the fight with the Red Sox was a statement, both in their dugout and the opposite dugout.
"Coming out of spring training, I thought the incident with the Yankees helped get us going early on," manager Joe Maddon said. "And then this incident in Fenway helped because you were in their home, you felt like you had been wronged, and you were standing up for yourself. It was the whole group. You saw a bunch of guys defending one another, and I thought, 'Wow, this is another positive moment.' And it was."
You could argue whether Shields chose the right moment. Yes, maybe he could have waited until later in the game, so he wouldn't have put such a burden on the bullpen. But loyalty doesn't work on such strict timetables.
Some of the impact might have been lost if Shields left the dirty business to a more expedient situation or a more expendable pitcher on the staff. The Rays felt this was necessary, and they felt it was appropriate.
"In small ways the confrontations we've had this season have benefited this team," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "That's because you can't plan them. It's not some contrived moment you're trying to create to serve as some galvanizing event for the team. It's something that just happens. And when it happens, to know that 25 guys have each other's back and are looking out for one another, I think serves an important purpose."
And all it took was one pitch.
John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.