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Don't bother the man, he's just pitching

Despite a rough first, James Shields delivers his usual seven innings and puts the Rays in position to win.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Despite a rough first, James Shields delivers his usual seven innings and puts the Rays in position to win.

BALTIMORE

Opening day is for the politicians. It's for players with big names and flashy games. Opening day is fireworks, balloons, painted logos and, honestly, too much pomp for the circumstance.

So you want to ask James Shields:

What's a regular guy like you doing in a game like this?

I mean, other than winning.

Glitz met grit on Monday. Over-the-top met under-the-radar. And Orioles hitters met one of the most reliable pitchers in the American League.

There was so much talk this spring about how things will be different for Tampa Bay in 2008 that we almost forgot you can count on one thing to be exactly the same.

That every fifth day, Shields will walk to the mound and, seven innings later, the Rays will have a good chance of winning another game.

"We are extremely aware of what he does
day-in and day-out, which is one of the reasons why the team made a commitment to him long term," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "There's not too many guys like him, that you can count on every time he goes out there."

Oh, Shields made some concessions to the concept of opening day excess. His wife and daughter flew in for the game, and so did his brother and sister-in-law. He admitted he might have been a tad anxious in the first inning, and it showed with three baserunners, two runs and too many pitches thrown.

But, 90 minutes later, the Orioles were left wondering where their hopes had gone. Shields did not allow another runner to reach scoring position, and he left after seven innings with a four-run lead.

"I feel like I'm an old-school pitcher. I was raised that way. Those guys used to go deep into the game all the time, and that's the way I approach every start," Shields said. "I threw something like 28 pitches in the first inning today, and I still went seven. That's my goal every time I go out there."

If you're keeping track, this means Shields has pitched six innings or more in 29 of his past 32 starts. That's not just good, that's close to phenomenal. Shields averaged 6.93 innings per start last season, and only three other pitchers did as well. All three, by the way, have a Cy Young award sitting on a shelf at home.

"He was just like he's always been," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "He expects to pitch well every time he goes out."

The Rays expect it as well. Which is why the team made the unconventional decision to sign Shields, 26, to a long-term contract in the offseason, even though he was not eligible for arbitration.

He is guaranteed $11.25-million in the next four years, and could make $44-million over seven seasons if he reaches all his incentives and the Rays exercise his options.

The idea was that, because of his grounded demeanor and dedication to workouts, there was little risk in offering a multiyear deal to a player they could have signed for one year at around $400,000.

"The thing with Shields you count on, and I know the rest of the league understands, is that his command is always there," manager Joe Maddon said. "And you may not think of him as having an overpowering fastball, but he does have an overpowering pitch. His change-up is one of the very best in the league."

That explains the reason for Shields' success. And maybe it explains the reason his name is not mentioned as much as some other young pitchers. His best pitch is his slowest. Shields is more efficient than dominant. He does not throw 95 mph, and he is not going to have many two-hit shutouts or 12-strikeout performances.

Scott Kazmir is the flashy one on this staff. He is the one who has already made an All-Star team, and he is the one who would have gotten the opening day start were it not for a cranky elbow.

Shields is the tortoise to Kazmir's hare. He is Robin to Kazmir's Batman. On an exaggerated scale, he is Don Drysdale to Kazmir's Sandy Koufax. And Shields has no problem with any of that.

"When I got called up in '06, Kazmir was already the guy around here. I'm here to ride his coattails," Shields said. "He's our ace, and he's always going to be our ace. If I can just keep up with him, I'll be doing fine."

When the opening day festivities were finally over, and when the clubhouse was nearly cleared out early Monday evening, Shields emerged with five baseballs in his hands.

Some mementos to remember his first start on opening day?

"Everybody was texting me, asking for one," Shields said.

Nothing special here, folks.

Just a guy doing his job.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Don't bother the man, he's just pitching 03/31/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 4:41pm]

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