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Easy path wrong one for Shields

Hard work got him to the Rays and will keep him there.

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA
Published March 12, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - When James Shields debuted after his major-league callup in May, he made pitching in the big leagues appear almost too easy.

He won his first four decisions, struck out slugger Alex Rodriguez three times at Yankee Stadium and had two hits after stepping into the batter's box for the first time in six years - things rookies just aren't supposed to do.

Though the 6-foot-4, 215-pound right-hander - who recovered from a two-run first inning to strike out five in four innings in the Devil Rays' 5-3 loss to Houston on Sunday - could open the season as the No. 2 starter with just 21 major-league starts, his journey to the majors has had its share of obstacles.

"I really think you have to fail in order to succeed," said Shields, 25. "If you don't know what failure is like, then you really don't know success. I know I have failed."

As the youngest of three growing up in Southern California, he fought to beat his older siblings and cousins, whether in basketball, hockey or baseball.

"Growing up, he was always the runt," said Shields' cousin, Phillies outfielder Aaron Rowand. "He was always the one wanting to come up and play with me and his brothers and we were always like, 'You're too small. Get out of here.' But he ended up being taller than the rest of us."

Playing with the older kids worked in Shields' favor because he was always ahead of youngsters his age.

"If he lost a game of basketball, he would go outside by himself and shoot until it was dark outside," said Jeremy Shields, James' older brother by two years. "He was always determined to be better."

Talent carried him far, but after being drafted in the 16th round in 2000 and toiling in the minors for three years - and overcoming shoulder surgery that took away one season - his career reached a crossroads.

"I kind of got in a rut," said Shields, who is still known by family by his childhood name, Jamie. "I didn't know where I stood in the organization. I wasn't going anywhere and I just had to tell myself, I have to do this myself.

"When I first signed I didn't know what was going on. I had no idea. I just kind of went through the motions, and I soon found out that you have to work your butt off no matter how long you've been out there."

That's when Rowand, one of the hardest workers in the game, invited Shields to train with him and physical therapist Tim Soder during the offseason in Las Vegas. But to train with his cousin, he had to keep up. He was up at 5 a.m. four days a week working beside Rowand, doing everything the position players did for 3 1/2 hours a day - focusing on leg lifts and plyometrics.

"It paid off right away for me," Shields said. "The first day I went in there, he had to push me a lot. I didn't have the motivation I do today. I just didn't do the right things I needed to do to take care of my body. My cousin saw what I was doing. I had gotten hurt. I had surgery and he kind of got in my butt a little bit, telling me that I needed to get started with the program and taking care of myself. He's one of the best guys in the big leagues to look up to as far as work ethic."

The next season, Shields dominated Double A, and the next May, he would be in a major-league uniform. After last season, Shields took two weeks off then was off to Las Vegas to train, even though Rowand spent most of his offseason in Philadelphia rehabbing an injury.

"I think it really paid off for him," Rowand said. "After the first year he went out there, he saw the kind of results he had, he was like, 'I want more of this,' and it clicked for him. I am so proud of him because he grabbed that opportunity and took advantage of it."

Shields was called up May 27 and didn't lose until June 26, all while maintaining a cool composure. But he began to rely on his changeup ahead in the count, and big-league hitters adjusted. He finished 6-8 with a 4.84 ERA. This season, he will have to mix his fastball and curveball better and have the confidence to throw the changeup in any count.

Shields can be tough on himself. In rough stretches last season, he became visibly upset with himself on the mound.

"He's got almost an everyday player's mentality as a pitcher," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I love the way he is. We're just trying to have him harness a bit of his energy. He's like a little sunburst at times. You have to harness that solar energy a bit. I think when you really watch the better pitchers in the game, as far as I can remember, rarely did you know what they were thinking."

In August, Shields pitched a complete game, allowing just two runs in Seattle, yet lost his sixth straight decision.

Oldest brother Jason, 29, called: "I told him he had a great game. But the only thing that mattered to him is that they lost. He is tough on himself. But there was always a saying in our family that when it gets tough, there are the two Fs. You either focus or fold."

Shields won't forget the pitch he'd like to have back in that game, an outside cutter Adrian Beltre hit for a two-run homer.

"It's just about experience," Shields said. "Last year, I think I went through every up and down you could think of. I've always been competitive and there's no way I change that, because I think that makes me the pitcher I am today. I think it's going to be a little easier to tone it down than bring it back up."