ST. PETERSBURG — Manager Joe Maddon predicted before Monday's game that complete games will become more prevalent in baseball based on the "renaissance in pitching in general."
After all, Maddon can just look at the renaissance of "Complete Game" James Shields.
Shields racked up his major-league-best 11th complete game Monday, a four-hitter in beating the Rangers 5-1 in front of a Labor Day crowd of 13,130 at Tropicana Field, helping the Rays pull within seven games of the wild-card-leading Red Sox.
"I get just as excited about this one as I did my first one of the year," Shields said. "I'm not done yet."
One day after rookie Jeremy Hellickson went nine innings, Shields put himself in historic company, the first pitcher to have 11 complete games since Randy Johnson (12) in 1999 and first AL pitcher since Scott Erickson (11) in 1998.
"It's unusual, very unusual for anybody to see this," Maddon said. "It's really quite a pleasure to see. Not many people do get to see this."
Shields, who was hoping for a "bounceback" year after a disappointing 2010 (13-15, 5.18 ERA), has made a remarkable turnaround, cutting his ERA in half (2.77), tying his career high in wins (14) and setting a top mark in strikeouts (205).
"If we were any better offensively the whole year, he'd probably have 20 wins by now," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "It's more than a bounceback year. It's a career year for him."
Shields considers the AL West-leading Rangers "one of the best-hitting teams in baseball," making it even more impressive that he shut them down in back-to-back starts, allowing a combined one run over 17 innings. Texas scored once in the ninth, largely due to defensive indifference, snapping Shields' scoreless streak of 23 innings, the longest in Rays history.
"This year, the guy has been able to finish off whatever he starts," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "We haven't been able to figure him out."
Shields said he gave Texas a different look than in last week's start by throwing more cutters. And after a relatively stress-free outing, Shields cut his complete game close. With his pitch count over 120, and closer Kyle Farnsworth warming up, Shields knew Adrian Beltre was his final hitter as he watched him foul off three consecutive 2-and-2 pitches before flying out to right.
"I was throwing some really good pitches to Beltre, and he just kept fouling them off, fouled them off, fouled them off," Shields said. "I'm just going, 'Man, just hit it already.' "
The Rays gave Shields plenty of hits, with Longoria (25th) and B.J. Upton (19th) ripping solo home runs and Casey Kotchman delivering a clutch two-run single. But what really stood out to Maddon was Sean Rodriguez hustling home from third to score before the Rangers could complete an inning-ending double play in the fourth inning.
"That's just good stuff there," Maddon said. "That's who we have to be."
Maddon acknowledged the Rays (77-63) wouldn't be where they are without their "magnificent" starting pitching, which leads the AL in ERA (3.47) and strikeouts (727) and is tops in the majors in innings (924). That starts with Shields, the rotation's senior member and workhorse who is having a season to remember.
Longoria said Shields reminds him of Phillies ace Roy Halladay in how he thinks a complete game from pitch No. 1. Matt Joyce compares him to his former Tigers teammate, Justin Verlander, in his "bulldog mentality."
"Unbelievable," Rodriguez said of Shields. "I'm glad I don't have to face him."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.