BOSTON — Coco Crisp did concede there could be some "tit for tat" in Thursday's game.
One day after the Red Sox centerfielder's controversial slide into Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura caused tempers to flare between the AL East's top two teams — who've shared some memorable scrums in the past — Crisp's charging of the mound Thursday sparked a benches-clearing brawl.
But after the dust settled at Fenway Park, after the three ejections (Crisp, James Shields and Jonny Gomes) and the brush-back pitches, it was Boston's 7-1, sweep-clinching victory in front of 37,639 that could have been the biggest knockout punch of all.
The Rays (35-25) came here three days ago with the league's best record, a weeklong stay in first place and riding an unprecedented level of confidence.
But they left after another convincing Red Sox (38-25) sweep, fell 11/2 games out of first place and headed for the West Coast for consecutive series against the hot-hitting Rangers and first-place Angels. And for the first time since getting swept in Boston last month, the Rays showed some chinks in the armor of their coming-of-age season. Their cleanup hitter (Carlos Pena) and closer (Troy Percival) are on the DL, and their biggest star (Carl Crawford) is playing in pain. And while their bats have quieted — six runs in the last three games — their typically stingy starting pitchers haven't made it out of the sixth inning in three days, giving their bullpen a hefty load to carry.
"It just proves they are champs for a reason; it also shows us where we have weaknesses we have to improve upon," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's not easy. If you want to be the best, you've got to beat these guys here, period. You've got to go through these guys to get to the top."
Before the first punch was thrown Thursday, Boston had already pounced on Shields. In the first, Shields hit Dustin Pedroia — he says "a two-seamer got away" — before giving up a double to J.D. Drew and a two-run homer to Manny Ramirez.
Then the fireworks began. In the second, Shields plunked Crisp in the right leg. Crisp had been a lightning rod since he jammed his left hand stealing second Wednesday, when he claimed Jason Bartlett blocked the bag with his knee.
Crisp rushed the mound, and Shields wound up and whiffed with a punch. Catcher Dioner Navarro tackled Crisp then Gomes threw several punches. Crawford and Iwamura were also scrapping at the bottom of the pile.
Though Gomes and Shields face suspensions, Maddon felt "justice was served," that Shields handled it the right way, hitting Crisp in the leg, and that the rest of the Rays were "defending their own."
"I would say tit for tat," Crisp said. "I'd say I got the worst of it because I'm running out there and they can get to me before our guys can get there to help. But like I said, he put the knee down, I slid in hard. They hit me with the ball, I went out to the guy who hit me with the ball. Right now, it's even to me."
With Shields out, the Rays had to use five relievers. J.P Howell had a bases-loaded walk in the Red Sox's three-run fourth, and the Rays couldn't seem to crack lefty Jon Lester. The Rays' best chance came in the eighth, when they loaded the bases before Justin Ruggiano struck out. Tampa Bay was 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position and stranded 13.
"You look at this series, last time and this one; (the Red Sox) beat us soundly twice two series in this ballpark," Maddon said. "For us to really get over the top, we're going to have to be able to compete and beat these people here."