BOSTON — Perhaps the Rays made their point. On the other hand, they also lost their game.
Pardon me for asking, but isn't that supposed to be the important part?
Yep, the Rays showed those infernal Red Sox that they weren't going to take any guff. On the other hand, they also gave away their best shot at retaking first place.
Forgive me for wondering, but isn't that the thing that is supposed to matter?
That's why Thursday night's fight seemed like such a losing proposition for the Rays. Somehow, they forgot what they were supposed to be fighting for, and before you knew it, they were once again on their way to being knocked out in Fenway.
Look, I have nothing against baseball brawls in general. They happen. Orchestrated properly, they can be an absolutely entertaining way to watch players compare their flexed biceps. Also, it is hard to criticize the Rays players for being so eager to stick up for one another. And, yes, it is true that the increasingly annoying Coco Crisp makes a perfectly lovely target while at bat.
Still, this was not the time.
Furthermore, this was not the place.
This game was about first place, remember? This was about the Rays trying to salvage a game in the torture chamber called Fenway Park. This was about Tampa Bay pitcher James Shields proving that he could help stop his team from sliding further away from the momentum it had built for the first two months of the season.
Ask yourself: Was leaving a bruise on Crisp's leg more important than all of that?
Oh, somewhere down the line, the Rays were going to go after Crisp. For 100 years, baseball has been played that way, and everyone, including Crisp, knows it. After the way Crisp had taken out Tampa Bay second baseman Aki Iwamura the night before, everyone who has ever gripped a bat knew that, eventually, the Rays would take a shot at getting even. Maybe two.
But in the second inning of a game this size? How smart is that? Why not wait until the eighth inning of a game that has already been decided? Why not wait until the next time the teams played? What not drive Coco cuckoo from the waiting for revenge to be served cold?
Instead, Shields plunked Crisp right away, and Crisp charged the mound, and suddenly, YouTube had itself a brand new fight scene.
And just like that, the Rays' chances of winning were done.
"I'm all about protecting my players," Shields said. "What he did yesterday was absolutely a dirty play and bush league. If I've got to get out in the second inning, I've got to get out."
And the idea of biding one's time until a later moment?
"I thought I should set the precedence right away," Shields said.
When the brawl was over, the umpires ejected Crisp, Shields and Jonny Gomes. Ask yourself this: In what world would you ever trade Shields and Gomes for Coco Crisp?
Put it this way: Getting those two out of the lineup is the most damage that Crisp could possibly do to the Rays. In hindsight, that might be the worst realization of all: The Rays were rope-a-doped by Coco Crisp.
It could have been worse. Did you see the roundhouse right Shields threw at Crisp. Yeah, Crisp was indeed lucky that Shields missed. Given the fragile state of pitchers' hands, however, Shields is also lucky that Shields missed. A broken hand certainly wouldn't have done his teammates any good.
It was an ugly fight, even by brawl standards. Shields was body slammed by Boston coach DeMarlo Hale. Crisp accused Carl Crawford of pulling his hair. Gomes had a Shelly Duncan flashback.
The worst of it is yet to come. Soon, the suspensions will come down from the commissioner's office. This fight didn't just hurt the Rays on Thursday; it will hurt them for games to come.
For the record, none of the Rays had a problem with Shields throwing at Crisp at the earliest opportunity. The general opinion seemed to be that quick retaliation was the best of all possible kinds.
"It's one of those things that baseball players do," manager Joe Maddon said. "When you think one of your guys has been unfairly, wrongly attacked, the natural tendency is to protect one of your own."
Again, Shields' heart was in the right place. After all, one of the reasons this team is so much better than past Rays teams is the chemistry in the clubhouse. Who knows? If the Rays believe this will deepen their bond, perhaps it will.
However, the Rays have done a pretty fair job of feuding with the Red Sox for most of their existence, and it hasn't done them a lot of good in the past. We have seen Gerald Williams vs. Pedro Martinez and Ryan Rupe vs. Trot Nixon and Scott Kazmir vs. Manny Ramirez and Lou Piniella vs. Curt Schilling. We have seen hit batters and cleared benches and puffed-out chests. And it has never really altered the standings.
A pitcher the quality of Shields, however, makes all the difference in the world. The longer he is on the mound, the better his team's chances are of winning.
Excuse me for saying so, but on Thursday night, that should have been the point.