ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Life after Carl Crawford?
What did you expect, tumbleweeds blowing across an abandoned carpet in Tropicana Field?
"Is there life after CC? Of course there is," Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday night. "There's life after anything, not just Carl. At any time in our lives, if we think we're indispensable or irreplaceable, we're going to find out that's not true.
"Of course, would I still like to have him? Absolutely. No question. But in this business, any business, you're going to lose some good people on occasion. But that doesn't mean they can't be replaced. It's one of those reality moments within life -- we're all replaceable."
We have seen these kinds of baseball diasporas before. The Florida Marlins blew up a World Series winner in 1997 and lost 108 games the following season. Maddon's Rays this past winter lost their first baseman, their shortstop, their closer, a vital cog in their starting rotation and just about every warm body occupying their bullpen. They also lost Manny Ramirez, who was supposed to tide them through leaner times and instead abandoned ship when, according to sources, he failed another drug test.
And they lost Crawford, who for the better part of the decade was the face of the franchise, a three-time All-Star and Gold Glover who hit, ran and fielded his way into the affections of the cowbell-ringers here.
But on Tuesday night, when Crawford returned to the Trop for the first time since leaving for John W. Henry's megabucks, another expensive part of a Red Sox team that has been as unstoppable as Denzel Washington's runaway train on pay-per-view, the Rays looked like anything but a charity case.
And after a 4-0 win in which James Shields spoiled Crawford's coming-home celebration by confiscating all the party favors, sending home the mariachi band and, oh yes, throwing a complete-game shutout in which he held the Sox to five singles, the Rays made it clear that they see themselves as something very different.
"Yes," said Maddon, answering questions with Tampa Bay Bucs coach Raheem Morris sitting next to him at his desk, "we are the defending American League East champs. We plan on defending it and [recapturing] the flag again. Don't let anyone think anything different."
It's easy, of course, to think otherwise, when you match up Tampa Bay's everyday lineup with what Terry Francona runs out there.
"The [Red Sox] are a scary team," said Johnny Damon, who inherited Tampa Bay's DH job when Ramirez bolted, has settled into the leadoff spot and has set a club record by reaching safely in 39 straight games, which is also a personal best. "They're what everyone thought they were at the beginning of the season.
"With the bad start and everything, we knew that they'd get back into this and overtake it. A pitcher goes down, they have luxury of having [Tim] Wakefield around. They still have depth, and Jed Lowrie has become a great player. Now it seems there's a lot of confidence over on that side."
But on the Tampa Bay side of the equation, there is still this: outstanding starting pitching, players who can catch the ball and maybe just enough offense to keep the Rays in the middle of this thing. On Tuesday night, the man occupying left field, the position Crawford played for the Rays, was Justin Ruggiano, an organizational player who hadn't been in the big leagues since 2008 until he was called up in May. He's batting .484 (15-for-31) over his past eight games.
On Tuesday night, Ruggiano broke a scoreless tie in the fifth with a home run off Wakefield. He has three home runs in 14 games this season after hitting two in 52 previous games in the majors.
Ruggiano also ran down Dustin Pedroia's drive into the gap in the sixth and ended the game with a nice running catch at the line of David Ortiz's opposite-field drive.
"I think teams around the league know we're here to stay, and we're here to compete," said Shields, who pitched his third complete-game shutout, most in the majors, and did not allow another baserunner as far as third after pitching out of a first-and-third, one-out jam in the first.
"We had a lot of changes this offseason. We didn't know what kind of team we had. We do now, and it's almost halfway through the season, and we're right in the hunt. No question about it; we are the defending champions and we're going to think that way."
The next month should tell a lot about these Rays. Tuesday night was the first of 14 games they will play against the Sox and Yankees in the next 32 days. But they will take their chances the next two nights with young right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (7-4, 3.03 ERA), who faces Josh Beckett on Wednesday, and left-hander David Price (7-5, 3.51 ERA) on Thursday against Clay Buchholz.
Like the Sox, the Rays got off to a brutal start (1-8). But since then, they have righted themselves, and their win Tuesday night drew them to within 3½ games of the Sox in the East.
"We have a good team," Damon said. "If we can somehow get our offense rolling on the same page, we have a chance to be great. We're hanging tough right now, and we plan to continue to do so."
Maddon and football coach Morris are good friends, and in spring training, Maddon sent Morris -- dressed in a Rays uniform -- to the mound to relieve Shields during an exhibition game. That wasn't going to happen Tuesday night, even though Maddon was prepared to bring in lefty J.P. Howell to face Adrian Gonzalez, who had three of Boston's hits off Shields, if Pedroia had worked his way aboard in the eighth inning. Marco Scutaro was on first after drawing the last of three walks Shields issued, and at the time it was still 2-0.
Maddon was yelling at Shields from the dugout, telling him to slow down and focus on making his pitch. Shields could see Maddon, but hear him? Forget it.
"It's almost like someone talking through a window or something," Shields said with a laugh. "I'm just so in the zone out there, I can't hear anything."
Shields struck out Pedroia on a changeup. He might not have heard Maddon, but the Red Sox most surely heard the Rays. You don't play "Taps" on cowbells.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.