Forget the W-L, but not the name

By now, he should have an obnoxious fan club. A group of guys without shirts or manners. By now, he should have a nickname. Something catchy so the guys on SportsCenter could act all knowledgeable and hip.

Published May 21, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - By now, he should have an obnoxious fan club. A group of guys without shirts or manners. By now, he should have a nickname. Something catchy so the guys on SportsCenter could act all knowledgeable and hip.

By now, James Shields should have your undivided attention.

Except the Devil Rays bullpen keeps getting in the way.

It happened again Sunday. Shields was typically strong and Tampa Bay's relievers were characteristically weak. The result? Another loss for the Rays, and another day in the shadows for Shields.

In life, they say, you get what you deserve. And anybody who believes that has never turned the game over to a Rays setup man.

Because James Shields deserves better. Much, much better.

Quietly, almost invisibly, he has been one of the top starters in major-league baseball this season. He has pitched into the seventh inning of nine consecutive starts, something no pitcher in either league has done.

He's near the top of the American League in strikeouts (62 in 67 innings). In opponent's batting average (.199) and ERA (2.94). He's near the top in everything but recognition and victories.

"I know it's frustrating for him, " manager Joe Maddon said. "It's frustrating for us."

The Rays have been tied or leading when Shields has come out of all nine of his starts. So how come his record is only 3-0?

Because his teammates turn into pumpkins when they're in charge of the ball. When he leaves the game, it's nonstop chaos. In the 141/3 innings he has entrusted to the bullpen, the Rays have been outscored 17-5.

And the only good that has come out of it is the continuing maturation of this 25-year-old from Southern California.

Shields refuses to complain. He won't point fingers or roll his eyes. He doesn't bemoan lost opportunities, and he hasn't shown even a whiff of discontent.

"I know all those guys in the bullpen real well. I grew up playing with most of them, " Shields said after the pen blew his 3-1 lead against Florida on Sunday. "We've got some awesome pitchers, we're just going through a bad stretch right now. So you roll with the punches. I feel for them, I know they want to do well."

If the victories have been slow in coming, the lessons have not. Shields is six days away from his one-year anniversary in the majors, and already he has shown remarkable poise, and an ability to adapt.

When he hit the big leagues last year, Shields rode his deceptive changeup to four straight victories. He was looking like a sensation. Considering he was a 16th-round draft pick in 2000, he was looking like a bit of a revelation.

But as word of his changeup began to spread around the league, hitters learned to sit on the pitch. Shields went 0-6 over a span of nine starts.

He also allowed his competitiveness to get in the way of his pitching. When things went wrong, Shields would get flustered on the mound. He would try to overthrow, and ended up making too many bad pitches.

Maddon could see it coming in Shields' body language. In his facial expressions. Maddon wouldn't make a big deal about it during the game, but there were talks with Shields afterward about channeling his emotions.

"You see guys who are really competitive but they'll never show you what they're thinking out there, good or bad, " Maddon said. "They might come in here and rip up a tunnel, and I'm good with that as long as nobody can see it. But on the mound, you don't let them know what you're thinking. He's getting to the point where he is able to do that. He's not quite there yet, but he's getting better."

Shields has also learned not to pitch in reverse. That is, he is using his fastball to set up his changeup.

The more he uses the fastball, the more effective the change-up becomes. And the more he uses the fastball, the more life it seems to have. He was typically throwing in the 88-90 mph range last year. This year he's closer to 90-92 mph.

"It wasn't that hard to adapt, " Shields said. "When you get hit around a little bit, you tend to learn that much quicker. When I went through that 0-6 stretch last year, I learned that making adjustments is the biggest part of this game."

There is still much room to grow. If you measure strictly by the calendar, he is only now finishing up his rookie season. He has 30 major-league starts, nine victories, and a wide world of potential.

"He's got the stuff, he's got the aptitude. He's got the composure to make a pitch with the game on the line. He's got a lot of nerve, " pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "If I were an outside evaluator, he's got everything that I would look for in a front-line major-league starter.

"And every time he goes out there, he takes another step in that direction."