If the Tampa Bay Rays win the World Series this year -- and mark this down as the first time that phrase has ever been typed in these pages without sarcasm -- they ought to vote a small share to Boston Red Sox outfielder Coco Crisp, who did something last week that just might have saved Tampa's season.
Crisp had gotten into a beef with the Rays middle infield. He'd taken exception to shortstop Jason Bartlett using his knee to block second base during a Crisp stolen base attempt Wednesday night. Crisp was safe but he injured his thumb on the play. Later in the same game, Crisp delivered a hard forearm to second baseman Akinori Iwamura as he slid into second on another steal attempt.
So on Thursday, Rays pitcher James Shields hit Crisp in the thigh with a fastball on the first pitch of Crisp's first at-bat. Shields, declining to deny the obvious, admitted after the game that he was standing up for his teammates by throwing at Crisp.
Crisp responded to the plunking by charging the mound. Shields, the Rays' second-best pitcher and the best who doesn't have thousands of points racked up from the disabled list frequent-visitor program, responded by throwing a roundhouse punch at Crisp -- with his pitching hand.
You know why boxers wear those big padded gloves? Because if they didn't, boxing matches would result in a lot more broken hands.
Crisp ducked and Shields' punch whizzed past his hard head, harmlessly. After Crisp doinked a counter-punch off the back of Shields' shoulder, catcher Dioner Navarro tackled him and Johnny Gomes, who seems ever-ready to charge into a fight from anywhere in the field -- he was the one who roared in from right field to pounce on Shelley Duncan of the New York Yankees in spring training -- raced out of the dugout and joined in for a little ground-and-pound, noting logically afterward, "A bench-clearing brawl is what it is."
Iwamura and Carl Crawford also joined in.
Anyway, peace was restored, the aftermath being that the Rays have boosted their reputation as a bona-fide, rootin'-tootin', not-back-downin' contender in the American League East. "We've been getting stomped around the last 10 years and it isn't going to happen anymore," said Shields, who was in high school 10 years ago. Of course, the Red Sox won the game 7-1 and swept the three-game series.
More upshot: Shields' valuable pitching hand isn't in a cast and Major League Baseball handed out a whole bunch of suspensions. Crisp got seven games, Shields got six, Gomes five, Crawford four, Iwamura three. Two other Red Sox and a Ray who had joined in got between three and five games each.
We've talked before about how baseball needs to do something about the appeal-drop fandango that allows players to manage the timing of their suspensions, but another thing that should be fixed is that starting pitchers get off way too easy on these suspensions. Crisp has to sit for a week. Shields, who only works every fifth game, has a start pushed back a day or two.
The other thing that warrants serious consideration -- other than the Rays sending Crisp a big thank-you card for having good reflexes -- is for teams to have fight drills for their pitchers.
It sounds like I'm kidding but I'm not kidding. The play for Shields when Crisp charged him was to drop down and tackle him, neutralizing him until reinforcements, in the form of Navarro, a step behind Crisp, and Gomes, never far away in a brawl, arrive. A pitcher can't be throwing roundhouse shots with his pitching hand. Shields got his shot in with the baseball. Now, get your man on the ground and keep those metacarpals intact.
That's worth an afternoon on a back field in March, and it'd be kind of a fun drill too.