Shields slams the door on Tigers
By MARC TOPKIN
Published May 31, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - James Shields didn't get off to a good start Wednesday. But the finish more than made up for it.
The most consistent starter in the Tampa Bay rotation allowed three straight hits to begin the game, five overall as Detroit scored three times in the first inning. Honestly, he admitted later, he just hoped to keep the score close and get through seven innings.
But in the dugout, manager Joe Maddon was thinking better thoughts, telling pitching coach Jim Hickey he'd seen other strong-willed starters, such as Tim Belcher, rebound from rough beginnings to pitch complete games. On the infield, there was nary a concern as B.J. Upton remembered seeing "that look" in Shields' eyes before and knew exactly what it meant.
And by the end of the night, after he sealed the 5-3 win that marked the first complete-game victory of his career, after he got the ovation for going to the mound for the ninth, after he struck out Marcus Thames for the final out, pumped his fist and took the hugs and high-fives from his teammates, Shields saw what they saw: the progress he has made during one full year in the major leagues.
"Last year, if that happened, I wouldn't have gotten past the third or fourth inning, " Shields said.
"That's huge for me, giving up three runs and coming back and shutting them out. ... Now that I know I can do it, next time that situation comes up it's going to be a lot easier for me."
Shields 4-0, 3.13 made only a slight adjustment between the first and second innings, better locating his fastballs early in the count to offset the Tigers' plan to swing early and often.
But the results were significantly different. After the 23-pitch first inning, he needed only 82 the rest of the way (including four innings of eight or fewer) and retired 24 of the final 27 batters.
"Good pitchers that have really good makeup are able to turn something like that around, and that's what he was able to do, " Maddon said.
"That was a classic example today of being able to regroup yourself and having confidence in yourself, coming back and pitching a game of that caliber against that team."
"I was very impressed with him, " Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He's the real deal."
Since joining the Rays on May 27, 2006, Shields has made 32 starts and has a 10-8 record and 4.15 ERA. He has pitched at least seven innings in eight straight starts and allowed three or fewer earned runs in eight of his 11 this season, though he won for the first time since May 4.
Maddon insists he's not ready to call Shields the ace of the staff in deference to Scott Kazmir, but Shields certainly looks like it.
"After those three runs in the first, he just had that look in his eyes and I knew it was going to be a long day for those guys, " Upton said.
The other Rays (22-29) did their part, chipping away at the Detroit lead on key hits by Akinori Iwamura, Carl Crawford and Upton, and homers by Elijah Dukes (his major-league rookie-leading 10th) and Brendan Harris (who put them ahead for good in the sixth).
But Shields did the most, logging the Rays' first complete-game win since Kazmir on July 3.
"It means a lot, " Shields said. "It's another milestone in my career, my early career."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8801. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays.