PORT CHARLOTTE — The only thing that could keep James Shields from making his Rays-record third straight opening day start would be, well, a bigger opening day — as his wife, Ryane, is set to deliver their second daughter four days after the April 6 date with Baltimore.
Otherwise, Shields is set for, and excited by, the assignment, long expected but made official Friday morning by manager Joe Maddon. Matt Garza was named the No. 2, and the rest of the rotation is yet to be determined.
"It means a lot," Shields said. "It shows how hard I've been working over the last couple years. It's what every starter kind of strives for. … To be a frontline guy in the big leagues, especially in the American League East, is pretty good."
Shields was rewarded for his work, which last year included an 11-12 record, 4.14 ERA and career-high 219 2/3 innings, and his work ethic. As much as Shields jokes about his "old man" status on the Rays staff since he's only 28, going as far as donning a fake gray beard while throwing an early spring batting practice, his leadership and maturity are key elements.
"He sets the example based on his preparation and his work," Maddon said. "He really has a great work ethic. In between starts, his program, his routine is super. And it's something we always wanted other pitchers to see over the last couple years."
Shields became that way because he knew no other way. He was only a 16th-round pick after a high school back injury hurt his draft status and was hardly a top prospect after missing the 2002 season following surgery to remove a benign tumor from his right shoulder that left him wondering if he'd ever pitch again.
But his internal drive, guided by some direction from older cousin Aaron Rowand, an outfielder with the Giants, put him on the proper path. And six years after being drafted, Shields made it to the big leagues.
"Nothing was just handed to him," Maddon said. "So with that, he earned everything. I'm sure he has not forgotten about the bad moments. And that probably contributes to the work ethic you are seeing right now."
There's more the Rays like about him, including his bulldog attitude about the challenge of facing other aces — "It doesn't matter who I'm pitching against," he insists — and the consistently competitive effort they've come to expect.
"Every time he goes out there, I mean every time he goes out there, I believe we're going to win that night," Maddon said. "He's one of those guys. And I think everyone on the team feels the same way. He's got that little aura about him that's good."
Shields has won 12, 14 and 11 games in his three full major-league seasons, and Maddon says 15 is a reasonable annual target, with an ERA under 4.00 and the same or fewer hits allowed than innings pitched.
Shields, naturally, is aiming higher. "I think 15 wins is great, but obviously I want to get to 18 to 20," he said. "My goal in my career is to be able to get 20 wins sometime. … I think with this team this year we're very capable of winning a lot of games this year, and I'm pretty excited about it."
It will start April 6, at Tropicana Field, unless Ryane dictates a change in plans.
"I told my wife, 'I don't think I'm missing opening day so I might have to meet you in there afterwards,' " Shields said. "I kind of mess around with her a lot about it, and she's okay with it. We're going to play it by ear and just go with the flow."
One way or another, he figures to be there.
New (old) look of the day
The Rays are going back to green for a day, and that day happens to be Wednesday. In honor of St. Patrick's Day, they'll wear these hats, which will be available for purchase ($27.99, fitted) only at Charlotte Sports Park.
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