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Star-Crossed Aces, Jon Lester and James Shields

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The first time Jon Lester and James Shields met head-to-head some stuff happened. Six years later, they're set to square off in MLB's first postseason game of 2014. Has fate aligned them to settle the score?

Jamie Squire

June 5, 2008 was a cloudy, overcast day in Boston, with a slight drizzle, too. The weather was fitting, as the air between the two teams playing that afternoon -- the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays -- was figuratively dense as well. The division rivals were at odds due to series of events that took place the night prior.

In the sixth inning of Wednesday night's game, Red Sox Center Fielder Coco Crisp stole second base after reaching first on an infield single off Jason Hammel -- yes, that Jason Hammel. As is his ritual, Crisp slid headfirst, but Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett put his knee down in front of the bag which resulted in Crisp jamming this thumb. He took the knee as an affront, and when he reached again in the eight inning, he aggressively slid into second baseman Akinori Iwamura, cleats up, to show his displeasure.

"You can do that, but that's shady ... If you going to hurt me, I'm gonna come back and hurt you," Crisp said of his actions.

Crisp was later engaged from the bench by Rays manager Joe Maddon, who was on his way to replace Hammel.

Jon Lester took the ball that Thursday afternoon. It was his first start since throwing the first and only no-hitter of his career, against the Kansas City Royals. It was his first full year in the majors, and he was yet to surpass Josh Beckett as the staff ace in Boston.

That afternoon, he was opposed by another young starter, James Shields.

Shields was a jewel of the Rays farm system, and was an emerging co-ace alongside All-Star Scott Kazmir. He had a rough first inning that afternoon, drilling Dustin Pedroia with one out, then allowing a double to JD Drew and then a three-run homer to cleanup man Manny Ramirez.

Crisp led off the second inning, and was unsurprisingly hit, in the right hip, on the first pitch of his first at-bat against Shields, an inside fastball. Crisp's first look was to first base, which was just enough to distract home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg and catcher Dioner Navarro so he could flip away his helmet and charge Shields.

Shields welcomed the melee, unloading a right haymaker towards Crisp's head, which he dexterously avoided and then let fly a weak swing of his own that barely made contact with the fuming pitcher. Crisp was tackled by Navarro and then dog-piled and socked in the head (and flank) by outfielders Jonny Gomes and Carl Crawford -- Crawford also allegedly tried to pull out one of Coco's corn rows. Shields and Crisp were ejected from the game, and all of the players involved were handed suspensions. Although not really involved, Grant Balfour could also be seen in the crowd.

(Jon Lester, the winning pitcher that day, was suspended too for plunking Carl Crawford and Iwamura in the 6th and 7th innings.)

The fracas is now among the better-known fights in baseball history.

***

It means absolutely nothing statistically, but for narrative's sake here are the head-to-head numbers between Lester vs. Shields since 2008:

Lester -- 3-1, 25⅓ innings, 2.13 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 20 Ks, 4 BB

Shields -- 1-3, 23⅓ innings, 4.24 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 19 Ks, 7 BB

When they first met, neither pitcher had emerged as a staff anchor. They'd shown promise, but it wasn't until the intervening years that they would grow into players who would command power-hitters like Wil Myers or Yoenis Cespedes on the trade market.

This time, six years later, they meet under a new set of circumstances. They are each mercenary aces acquired at heavy costs by their respective teams to win a big game exactly like the one Tuesday. A lot of the same faces will be there, although they're in different uniforms -- and I'm sure their tempers have flared down by now.

I woke up this morning with part of the prologue from Romeo & Juliet bouncing through my head, which is odd, considering I haven't read the play since my sophomore year of high school.

It goes:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.

Maybe it's a stretch, but to me, James Shields and Jon Lester seem star-crossed, not in the doom-and-gloom sense of the ominous prologue, but because they were acquired for exactly the purpose they're going to be used Tuesday night -- and the history mentioned above, of course.

It couldn't be scripted any better. Shields is rejuvenated after finding his change-up during the season's second half, and Lester has rebounded from sub-par (by his lofty standards) 2012 and 2013 campaigns. In essence, these two are at the height of their powers, facing each other not knowing where they'll be tomorrow. Who knows what teams they'll be pitching for the next time they meet? Tonight it doesn't matter.