ST. PETERSBURG — James Shields has said both he and fellow starting pitcher Matt Garza must step up during the Rays' playoff push.
Sunday afternoon, Shields delivered.
Though he couldn't top Garza's no-hitter of a week ago, he picked the perfect time for one of the best performances of his career, living up to his "Big Game James" nickname.
With the Rays facing the first-place Yankees and ace CC Sabathia while minus two key regulars, Shields shut down the majors' top-scoring team in a 3-0 win in front of another Tropicana Field sellout crowd of 36,973.
"That was the best I've ever seen Shields," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Ever."
Shields threw 71/3 innings, striking out 11 (including six straight) to help the Rays take two out of three from the Yankees in a series that had a playoff atmosphere. In doing so, the Rays (65-39) cut New York's lead in the American League East to one game.
"It was a very important game for us to win," Shields said. "For me, especially the way I've been struggling the first half of the year; and the last four or five starts, I've felt really good. To be able to continue that and show that is tremendous."
Shields' performance was a case of putting it all together.
There was better control of his emotions and his fastball, which catcher Kelly Shoppach said Shields located better than he had all year.
There was mechanics as Shields has been working during the past five starts on finding the right rhythm. Maddon pointed out he maintained his delivery for all 116 pitches.
And there was his changeup, which Maddon said was "ferocious" and reminiscent of when Shields entered the majors in 2006.
"All he threw was changeups," Yankees rightfielder Nick Swisher said. "We're going to have to remember that for next time."
Shields' biggest strikeout came in the seventh, when Alex Rodriguez pinch hit with two outs and one on. Still stuck on career homer No. 599, Rodriguez worked a full count. With camera lights flashing and the sellout crowd on its feet, Shields (10-9) painted the inside corner with a fastball for a called strike, pumping his fist on his way to the dugout.
"It was definitely a big moment in the game," Shields said. "I threw him some really good pitches. He worked the count, and I was thinking to myself, 'Why can't you just ground out already?' But I ended up spotting a fastball right on the black."
The Rays lineup was without Ben Zobrist (back stiffness) and Carlos Peña (sore right foot). But with the words "adapt" and "adjust" written on the lineup card posted in the clubhouse, the Rays did just that.
Sean Rodriguez, making his first big-league start at first, played solid defensively. And Willy Aybar hit a ground-rule double in the second and scored the first run.
"Our bench guys are just as good as anybody's starters around the league," Shields said.
"These guys can start on any team."
Chad Qualls, acquired Saturday, came through in an eventful debut, falling behind 3-and-0 to Lance Berkman — his teammate while with Houston from 2004-07 — before getting him to ground into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play. Rafael Soriano finished it with his AL-leading 30th save, and the Yankees left saying they expect the Rays to give them a fight for the AL East title until the end.
"I think experience helps us out. We kind of know what to expect now," Shields said. "In '08, we didn't know what to expect. We were kind of rookies at that.We're not going to say, 'Oh we're playing the Yankees or we're playing Boston.' We're trying to win each game.
"Our main focus is to win the American League East. And to be able to take two out of three from these guys is huge for us."