ST. PETERSBURG -- "Complete Game James" was at it again Tuesday night, opening a crucial series with the Red Sox by tossing a five-hit shutout in the Rays' 4-0 victory.
James Shields pitched his fourth complete game of the season -- and his Major-League leading third shutout -- on a night when most of the 20,972 patrons at Tropicana Field were focused on former Rays left fielder Carl Crawford, who signed a seven-year, $142 million free-agent contract with Boston in December.
"It feels really good, especially a game like this," Shields said. "We've been struggling at home, and to be able to open the series off like that, it's [something].
"I told [Rays manager] Joe [Maddon] from Spring Training that what I want this season is to be able to go as deep into the game as possible, throw some nine-inning ballgames. I think I've got a couple under my belt now. That's what I want to do. I want to be able to give the bullpen a rest, pitch deep in the game and get some wins."
By winning, the Rays moved to 36-31 on the season and within 3 1/2 games of the first-place Red Sox in the American League East.
Tuesday night's game looked like an approaching car wreck for the Rays, who were coming off a grueling 11-game road trip to play a team that had scored 35 runs in its last three games against a good Toronto team. And the way the game started, that script looked feasible. No doubt there were some who were wondering whether Shields could escape the first inning. Finishing the game looked like a pipe dream for the 29-year-old right-hander at that point.
Shields issued a leadoff walk to Jacoby Ellsbury. After facing four more batters, Shields had to deal with a two-out, bases-loaded situation and Crawford stepping to the plate. Shields escaped the inning by getting his former teammate to ground to first baseman Casey Kotchman, who flipped to Shields covering the bag for the third out.
Boston threatened in the third before Shields got Kevin Youkilis to hit into an inning-ending double play, which would be the first of three inning-ending double plays on the night.
In the seventh, Shields won a showdown with Crawford, who fought him for 12 pitches before finally striking out for the second out of the inning.
Boston had a chance to chase Shields in the eighth, when Dustin Pedroia hit with two outs and Marco Scutaro on first. J.P. Howell was warming in the Rays' bullpen and Shields knew that if he wanted to finish the game, he had to get Pedroia, because the left-handed-hitting Adrian Gonzalez was due to hit next. Allowing Pedroia to reach base would have forced Maddon's hand.
"If I don't get him right there, I think [Howell] is facing [Gonzalez]," Shields said. "He's going to go with the matchup there. He's got Gonzo up next, so he had two hits against me earlier in the game. But it ended up working out nice."
Shields struck out Pedroia swinging at a changeup to retire the side.
Maddon said he called to Shields in the eighth to take his time and make his pitch, noting that Shields will often hurry up while trying to finish out the game. Shields smiled at the mention of his manager's words of encouragement.
"Every once in a while, Joe will yell out something," Shields said, "but when I'm on the mound, I don't really hear too much. I'm kind of in that zone. I can kind of see him over there saying something, but it's like someone talking through a window or something. I'm just so in a zone out there that I can't really hear anything."
Shields retired Gonzalez, Youkilis and David Ortiz in order in the ninth to finish off his masterpiece. Shields is now tied with Philadelphia's Roy Halladay for the Major League lead in complete games.
"He kept the ball down in the zone," Crawford said. "He threw all of his pitches. He mixed it up really well. He kept the ball from hitting our barrels pretty good. ... [Shields] pitched a good game tonight. I know those guys over there step it up when the Red Sox come to town. I expected him to pitch one of his best games, and he did."
Justin Ruggiano got the Rays on the scoreboard in the fifth with a solo home run off Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Evan Longoria scored on a passed ball by catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the sixth. Tampa Bay added insurance runs in the eighth on RBI singles by Kotchman and John Jaso.
While the Red Sox remain in first place, Maddon said his club isn't going anywhere.
"Yes, we are the defending American League East champs and we plan on defending it and recapturing the flag again," Maddon said. "And don't let anybody think anything differently."
At the end of Tuesday night, Maddon's words seemed to have legs.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.