ATLANTA — Right-hander James Shields believes there often has been a thin line separating his recent struggles from success.
"A game of inches," he said.
That certainly was the case in Thursday's 3-1 loss to the Braves at Turner Field, which extended Shields' losing streak to a career-high five straight starts.
"He pitched great, he pitched really, really well," manager Joe Maddon said. "You can't get more even in regards to that game. They just got one knock we didn't get, and they ended up winning it. … (Shields) deserved a better fate, there's no question."
The tipping point came in the sixth, Shields' final inning, when he nearly escaped a bases-loaded jam. It started with a single to center by Braves pitcher Tim Hudson. Martin Prado then slapped a grounder just past shortstop Reid Brignac in the hole between short and third. After a sacrifice bunt put runners on second and third, Shields struck out rookie phenom Jason Heyward, who had homered in the fourth, on a 2-and-2 changeup.
The Rays walked catcher Brian McCann intentionally to load the bases for Troy Glaus, who entered the at-bat 0-for-9 vs. Shields in his career. That's when Glaus lofted a slider to rightfield, and it fell for a two-run double after nicking the glove of a diving Ben Zobrist.
"If I'm a split-second earlier, I think I catch that," Zobrist said. "Just couldn't get there. … It's one of those tough ones to swallow. Because those runs are what ended up to be the difference."
Maddon quipped that Glaus "couldn't have thrown (the ball) out there any better."
With the loss, the Rays' fourth in their past six games, they head for Miami in their all-white attire, hoping they can reverse their recent interleague play woes. They're still tied for first (41-25) in the American League East, thanks to the Yankees' 7-1 loss to the Phillies, but the Rays know they must step it up against a Marlins team that won two of three at Tropicana Field last weekend.
"We need to get better right now," Shields said. "We need to go to Miami and take two out of three or try to sweep."
Shields was much better Thursday than his last start, which was arguably the worst of his career (10 runs over 31/3 innings against the Marlins). In previous outings, Shields said it'd be a matter of location, his fastballs getting too much of the plate, and hitters making him pay.
But Shields was sharp Thursday, striking out three, with McCann's intentional pass the only walk. Shields said when he missed, he missed low in the zone, showing better command of his fastball.
"I feel really good," he said. "I feel like I got my stuff back."
Maddon said Shields, who was pulled after just 82 pitches, would have gone deeper in the game had the Rays not been playing by National League rules. But when the Rays had a rare scoring chance against Hudson, with runners on first and second and two outs in the seventh, Maddon pinch-hit Willy Aybar for Shields, who actually had one of the Rays' four hits. Aybar grounded out, and Hudson picked up his seventh win in 11 career starts against the Rays.
"He was good," Zobrist said. "Obviously the ball was moving pretty good, and we had a tough time getting the barrel on it. … James pitched a great game. You wish we could have gotten more runs for him."