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Gary Shelton: Brutal fourth is undoing for Tampa Bay Rays' James Shields

Manager Joe Maddon comes to get the ball from James Shields in the sixth inning, though it was the fourth that hurt.

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Manager Joe Maddon comes to get the ball from James Shields in the sixth inning, though it was the fourth that hurt.

. fast facts

One bad fourth

Here's a batter-by-batter look at the bottom of the fourth inning Saturday, when the Rangers turned a 3-0 deficit into a 5-3 lead against James Shields:

Elvis Andrus: Hit by pitch

Josh Hamilton: Single to right, Andrus to second

Michael Young: Single to left, Andrus to third, Hamilton to second

Adrian Beltre: Hit by pitch, Andrus scores, Hamilton to third, Young to second

Mike Napoli: Single to left, Hamilton and Young score, Beltre to second

Nelson Cruz: Strikes out swinging

David Murphy: Beltre to third, Napoli to second on wild pitch. Strikes out swinging but safe at first on wild pitch, Beltre scores, Napoli to third

Mitch Moreland: Grounds out to shortstop, Napoli scores, Murphy to second

Ian Kinsler: Flyout to center

ARLINGTON, Texas

The inning snuck up on him. Probably, it snuck up on you, too.

It came in ruthless, unexpected and unforgiving. Innings like this simply do not happen to James Shields anymore, not in this year of rebuilt stardom, not in this year of regained trust.

These days, you expect Shields to be smooth highways and safe landings. Spot him a 3-0 lead on most days, and it feels like money in the Rays' pockets. Shields is the ace again, after all. He is the bulldog once more.

There in the inning that got away, however, he looked very much like a bloodied boxer hanging on the ropes.

It was the bottom of the fourth, and as quick as a sucker punch, Shields' world was spinning out of control in what became an 8-6 loss. A guy who doesn't hit batters was hitting batters. A guy who doesn't throw wild pitches was throwing wild pitches. There were line drives, curveballs in the dirt and runners streaming across the plate as if it were rush hour.

"I didn't do my job," Shields said. "Bottom line. I have to do better."

The inning was so bad, and so endless, that by the time Shields finally recorded the second out, he began to walk toward the dugout as if the pain was finally over. Who could blame him? Some pitchers might have sprinted.

After this season, after Shields righted his career, you might have suspected he was above an inning like this. He has been the Rays' finest pitcher this season, probably among the top 3-4 pitchers in the American League. Last year, he was the pitcher no one wanted in the playoff rotation. This year, he was the one the Rays could not do without.

Then came the fourth, and the Rangers took a bat to any thought of the Rays leaving town with a 2-0 series lead.

For three innings, Shields had been impressive again. He retired nine of the first 10 batters, and the Rays held a 3-0 lead. Considering that Shields had won five games this year with only two runs, three must have felt like a party invitation.

Then came his most chaotic inning of the season. It was one of the worst unravelings of a top-flight pitcher as you have ever seen. After a season of getting everyone out, Shields could not sit down the Rangers.

It started simply enough, with shortstop Elvis Andrus getting hit by Shields' third pitch of the inning. That should have been an omen. Shields hit only five batters all season.

Then came a sharp single by Josh Hamilton, who was hitting only .125 against Shields, then another single by Michael Young, who was hitting only .200. Still, that should not have shocked anyone. The Rangers are a great hitting club, especially at home, and it was a matter of time before they woke up.

With the bases loaded, however, it got a little strange. Shields hit another batter. This time, it was Adrian Beltre, and it forced in the Rangers' first run of the series. In his major-league career, Shields had never hit two batters in the same inning.

After a nine-pitch at-bat, Texas catcher Mike Napoli singled to tie the score. Napoli was also hitting .200 against Shields.

Shields struck out Nelson Cruz, and Shields still had a chance to get out of the inning tied. But after two quick strikes to David Murphy, Shields could not finish him off. He threw a wild pitch, and on a strikeout pitch, he threw another that allowed Beltre to score. When you consider that Shields had only four wild pitches all season, two in a single inning was tough to swallow. Only once in his career, in July 2007, had Shields had two wild pitches in a single inning.

The next batter, Mitch Moreland, knocked home another run with a groundout. It was 5-3 Texas. The Rays never led again.

For Shields, the lack of sharpness was a shame. In the history of Tampa Bay athletes, none had ever had such a turnaround season. Last season, his ERA was almost twice as high, and he gave up as many hits, homers and earned runs as any pitcher in the league.

When Shields came back this spring, manager Joe Maddon says, he had a fire to him. He talked about finishing games in a league where few pitchers do. He won 16 games, and he had 11 complete games, and batters hit 77 points lower against him this year than last. There was no better Ray.

This was like the ghost of 2010. Any ace will tell you, however, that five runs in an inning are too many. It erased the lead in the game, and it erased the lead in the series.

In other words, it was a bad game for Big Game. And it increased the possibility of a Game 5, in which the Rays would send Shields to the mound once more.

Next time, he will be better.

Won't he?

Gary Shelton: Brutal fourth is undoing for Tampa Bay Rays' James Shields 10/02/11 [Last modified: Sunday, October 2, 2011 1:19am]

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