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Maddon beams about Rays

James Shields is congratulated by David Price after his shutout last night. James Shields is congratulated by David Price after his shutout last night. (J. Meric/Getty Images)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 15, 2011

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Received 50 lashes from a reader a week back when declaring the American League East a two-team race between Boston and New York. Going back on that bold prediction with so much of the season to go? Not really.

But the Tampa Bay Rays have to be given much credit for hanging around with the big boys. They have maybe a fifth of the Red Sox and Yankees’ payroll, lost half their team to free agency, yet after defeating the Sox, the hottest team in baseball, 4-0 last night at The Trop, one’s respect for what this franchise does grows enormously.

This team has no business being 3 1/2 games behind the Red Sox.

In the end, maybe the Rays won’t be that close. But as the days go by, they keep staying relevant, not being overwhelmed by the two big-money teams ahead of them.

“We have a very good team,’’ said Johnny Damon, who has played for the Red Sox and Yankees and won championships with both but loves where he’s playing now. “Being around these young players and seeing them go through things for the first time is pretty neat. It tells me how precious every day being a major leaguer is.

“Joe Maddon is tremendous to play for. He plays everybody, gives everyone a chance to prove themselves, and these guys have really responded.’’

In 2008 we all waited for the great Rays collapse and it never happened. They made it all the way to the World Series but lost to the Phillies. Yet what respect we all had for their players and manager, and what they have continued to accomplish here year after year.

James Shields last night worked the 669th straight game in which the Rays have had a pitcher under the age of 30 start, and he fired his third shutout of the season and lowered his ERA to 2.60. He threw, as Maddon pointed out, “91 to 92 with location’’ and you might as well add conviction. He had some key moments. In the first inning, with the bases loaded, Carl Crawford came up, and Shields got him to ground out to end the inning. In the seventh, in a 12-pitch at-bat, he struck Crawford out again.

The Sox knocked into three double plays and Shields never let them up for air. While he said he didn’t mean to walk David Ortiz on four pitches to load the bases in the first, he said, “I was just missing by an inch or two.’’ And it turned out to be a good thing, because it brought Crawford up and he handled him.

This was a big win for the Rays for so many reasons.

Maddon was pleased with the win and the resiliency his team showed. The Rays were coming off a long road trip, on which they went 6-5, even though the entire team had an intestinal virus at some point.

Damon said, “It was probably the most grueling trip I’ve ever been on in my career.’’

The Rays also had not been a good home team — 15-16 after last night’s win. With a 21-15 road record, they have the largest home/road differential in the American League and they know they need to be better.

Maddon talked about instilling in his team that it is the defending American League East champion and he wants it to defend that title to the best of its ability.

“To come home at 4 a.m. and then play that game with that kind of energy, it shows the character of this team,’’ Maddon said. “We are defending our title and we go out every night and try to do that.’’

And they did it against a Sox team that had won nine straight and had outscored the Blue Jays, 35-6, over a three-game series. The Sox have been the best team in baseball since their 0-6 start — which is exactly the way the Rays started.

“They’re everything we knew they were going to be,’’ Damon said of the Sox. “They have great starting pitching and they have a guy like [Tim] Wakefield who comes in there and gives you quality when a guy goes down to injury. They have great depth, a great team. When you beat them you’ve accomplished something, but over here we don’t back down to anyone any time.

“We believe we have outstanding pitching and we have guys who can hit when we need to hit. This has been a great opportunity to come here after Manny [Ramirez] went down, and before that when they lost Carl Crawford. I’m not the left fielder I used to be, but this has given me a chance to rest up and be a DH and contribute that way.’’

Last night Shields gave them everything they could have asked for in his 12th game of seven or more innings, which ties him with Roy Halladay for the most in that category. All five Sox hits were singles, and he retired 17 of the last 20 batters he faced. His three shutouts are more than 23 teams have total on the season.

“Joe knows I want to go nine every time,’’ Shields said. “I thought I could do it. I was in a good rhythm out there most of the game and was spotting my pitches. I felt great, so there was no reason not to finish the game.’’

Maddon was awestruck that Shields was so good against such a dominant lineup. The manager went up and down the Sox lineup and even mentioned how ridiculous it was that Marco Scutaro is the No. 9 hitter, how tough an out he can be.

The Rays have defied logic. They have their star in Evan Longoria, and their new leader in Damon, but they’ve developed their own new stars like Matt Joyce, always considered a multi-tool player who finally has gotten a chance to play every day and now is showing why baseball people were so high on him.

The Rays have gotten contributions from Sam Fuld, and Casey Kotchman has resurrected his career after a vision problem was diagnosed. Now he’s a .300 hitter again.

Justin Ruggiano homered against Wakefield, and as Maddon pointed out, “Here is a guy in particular, who we had taken off the roster so he had to go back [to the minors] and earn his way back. We told him, ‘Listen, even though you’re off the roster, if you do everything right, you get it going again, if there’s a need and you’re the right guy, we’re going to bring you back up.’ He worked hard and he’s back up here doing a great job for us.’’

Tampa has Shields and David Price and Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson. The Rays replaced their entire bullpen with guys such as Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz and Joel Peralta and it’s worked out well so far.

It’s mid-June. The Rays are still in it. They shut out the hottest team in baseball, and suddenly a certain reader has more fuel to add to his fire.

Everyone loves an underdog. And that’s what the Rays are.

Wouldn’t mind being wrong.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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