Shields (who else?) to the rescue

Righty is the antidote for a traumatic loss with another stellar start.

Published June 10, 2007

MIAMI - A true ace can be measured not only by what he does on the mound but what he does for his teammates.

And when James Shields takes the hill, the Devil Rays have a different sense about them. A sense of calm, a sense of confidence and, often, a sense of victory.

Pitching a night after the trauma of having seen two frontline players helped off the field and the bullpen turn a comfortable lead into a frustrating loss, Shields set the Rays straight Saturday by leading them to a 7-2 win over the Marlins.

Shields improved to 6-0, one shy of the team record for consecutive wins, and continued his remarkable roll: He has left all 13 of his starts with the Rays tied or ahead, has worked seven or more innings in 10 straight starts and 11 overall and has allowed three or fewer runs in nine of his past 10.

"It's been unbelievable, " Shields said. "I don't want to try to dwell on it too much, but it has been unbelievable. I've been making my pitches, and when you make your pitches and go deep in the game, that's the kind of thing that happens."

Shields worked seven solid innings, and even the battered bullpen was better behind him. Gary Glover, earning manager Joe Maddon's trust for more key opportunities, allowed the first two batters of the eighth to reach but retired the next three, then - with closer Al Reyes ready - came back for a quick ninth.

"Right now when Shields goes out there, the guys feel they have a pretty good shot to win, " Maddon said, "and it's reflected in our play."

The Rays hitters did what they could to help against Florida ace Dontrelle Willis, quietly grabbing a 4-0 lead in third by taking advantage of four infield singles (including three in a row) and one outfield single, a walk and a throwing error. Elijah Dukes had one of the infield hits, snapping an 0-for-23 streak that had dropped his average to .192.

"Little nicks and cuts, " Maddon said.

Miguel Cabrera's two-run rocketed homer in the sixth made it 4-2, and the Marlins had a chance for more with two on to open the seventh. But Shields - in his biggest test of the night - held his ground, striking out pinch-hitter Jason Wood (who curiously wasn't bunting) and Alfredo Amezaga, then retiring Dan Uggla on a lazy fly to shallow right.

"He rose to the occasion once again, " Maddon said. "He makes pitches when he has to, and he reaches down for whatever that extra is that the better guys have. Another wonderful performance. Just solid. He's just been solid all year."

The Rays tacked on more with back-to-back eighth-inning homers by Carlos Pena (a 447-foot shot to right-center) and Raul Casanova (his first in the big leagues since May 12, 2002).

For all that has gone wrong, the Rays, at 27-33, have their best record ever after 60 games. And a sense that if they can improve the bullpen, even better days are ahead.

"You look specifically at our record right now and it's not a good record, " Maddon said. "But if you break down the breakdowns, this record could actually be pretty darn good right now."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays.