TORONTO — The ritual started in Boston a couple of weeks ago, and they'd kept it pretty much within the clubhouse. But Sunday was worthy of going public.
James Shields had just finished off a stunning second straight complete game victory in the Rays' 2-0 win over the Blue Jays, and when David Price ran out on the field Shields greeted him with the now obligatory full-bore, full bear hug.
"It was a good one; he picked me up off the ground today," Price said. "I don't care. When you throw a complete game shutout, you can do whatever you want out there."
And why not, since for the second straight game, Shields pretty much did what he wanted on the mound.
He held the Jays to four hits and struck out seven, even retiring Jose Bautista twice (!) in a 95-pitch masterpiece. Five days earlier, he beat the White Sox, allowing one run on four hits, striking out nine, throwing 105 pitches. He'd thrown two complete games in a three-start span in 2008, but this clearly was even better.
"To be able to throw back-to-back complete games is something really special," Shields said. "I'm definitely keeping the balls and the lineup cards, that's for sure. Something to put up in the house, a little memorabilia."
The Rays, moving back to .500 at 11-11, needed Shields to be sharp. They got a two-run first-inning home run from Ben Zobrist — looking more like the 2009 Zorilla with his team-high fifth homer — then not much else against lefty Ricky Romero and two relievers, going 18 plate appearances without a hit and striking out 12 times, including four by not-so-Super Sam Fuld.
"I don't think when that happened anybody expected that would be the deciding factor in the game," Zobrist said. "But as the game went on you could tell Shields was on. … He was as good as he's ever been. I thought he looked good in his last start; this one he was filthier with all of his pitches."
Said catcher Kelly Shoppach: "He's as sharp as I've ever seen him, even as an opposing player."
Shields didn't allow a hit until Jose Molina's slow grounder up the middle to lead off the fifth, then another two outs later, but struck out Mike McCoy. He struck out Bautista, who'd reached his first 10 times up in the series, with a man on in the sixth. And he got some help, topped by a dazzling play by Sean Rodriguez at third to open the seventh.
Shields is 2-1 with a 2.35 ERA in five starts, an impressive turnaround thus far from his career-worst 13-15, 5.18 last season. The key has been not turning so much at the start of his delivery, a slight change pitching coach Jim Hickey implemented this spring.
"He just stopped rotating so much with his upper body, and it's more on a direct line with the catcher, and with that he's able to throw the ball where he wants to," manager Joe Maddon said.
"I'm telling you, that's the difference. Sometimes people need a complicated answer, and a lot of times it's something pretty simple. Being able to throw the ball where he wants to … and getting his outs in a more relatively easy manner, where he's not working so hard for his outs, I think that's when he pitches his best."
Shields said the actual change was small, a matter of making his initial step back from the rubber more to the side. The difference has been huge, with better command of his fastball (which he's throwing with a few miles less velocity), a sharper curve and an even more effective changeup.
"I simplified things," he said. "I'm a lot quieter in my delivery, I'm not so violent and I think I'm more under control."
The hugging started in Boston April 12 when Price was upset about being taken out in the eighth. "He was kind of frustrated a little bit, so I just told him to hug it out," Shields said. "He squeezed me as hard as he could and then he started laughing afterward and he ended up getting the win, and we've actually been doing it with each other ever since.
"It's just kind of a superstition thing. … Whoever pitches has to do the squeezing. I guess we're a little closer than everyone thinks."
The way Shields is going, it's not like there's anything wrong with that.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.