ST. PETERSBURG — Playing the Red Sox at home is typically a big deal. Playing the Red Sox for the first time since the ugly June 5 brawl in Boston is even bigger. And playing the Red Sox with first place, which the best-in-baseball Rays currently hold, on the line to start the second half of the season makes this potentially the biggest series ever played at Tropicana Field.
"I think we're definitely going to be stepping up our intensity, there's no doubt about that," said James Shields, who started the June 5 festivities by hitting Coco Crisp with a pitch and, fittingly, starts tonight. "We're definitely going to be playing pretty hard. … I think it's a big series as far as (first place) goes. As far as the fighting and stuff goes, that's behind us. If they want to do something, then we'll see what happens."
MLB has given the umpiring crew a heads-up, with background on the history between the clubs, and there will be discussions, and possibly warnings issued, before the first pitch.
Repercussions from the June 5 brawl are still being felt, with the last of the eight suspensions being served by Tampa Bay's Akinori Iwamura, through tonight, and Crisp, whom the Rays considered the instigator, for the full series.
And Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon made himself a target with his June 11 TV show comments, saying "this thing isn't all settled and done," what the Rays did was "a bunch of bull" and that "payback's a b----.' "
Shields said the Rays were "shocked" to see Papelbon's comments, but reliever Trever Miller said more telling will be what he does on the mound: "It's all on him. The ball's in their court if they want to do anything."
The official line from both clubhouses is that they consider the June 5 hostilities behind them. "It was over the moment we left that city," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
"MLB does a good job of letting everyone know what they expect to happen," Sox third baseman Mike Lowell told the Boston Globe. "I think it's best we focus on playing baseball and not extracurricular activities."
If anything, there has been some mutual admiration. Maddon said the Sox are "really good" and "are the best team we've seen this year." And Papelbon, of all people, raved about the Rays' strengths to the Globe on Sunday, saying, "I'm not going to stand here and berate their team. They've got a good team."
Also, he said, "I think it's going to be a hard-fought series for both sides for the simple fact that we're battling for first place."
The battles will extend to the stands, with Rays players hoping their fans will outnumber and outcheer those who find their way to the Trop three series a year to root for the Sox.
"These players that have been here for a while deserve something like this," Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "We've put a lot of work in, and been together for a while, had dirt kicked on us for a while. I think it's good we've all accomplished it and we're able to get a first-place battle at home."
Information from staff writer Joe Smith and Gordon Edes of the Boston Globe was used in this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.