MIAMI — The dominant three-hit complete game was the third, and the most impressive, of his thus-far remarkable bounceback season, and the second with nary a run. The 13 strikeouts were one more than he'd ever had in 161 big-league starts and matched the team record, and the 126 pitches the most he'd thrown in a game at any level.
But what James Shields — naturally — was most pleased about in the Rays' 4-0 sweep-avoiding Sunday win over the Marlins was the hard ground ball he hit to third that was misplayed by Greg Dobbs and knocked in Tampa Bay's first run.
"I definitely liked the rib-eye," Shields said. "That was real nice. It got me going, got me the lead. And that's all I needed."
As much as the Rays (26-21, and tied with the Yankees for first in the AL East) have been scuffling for runs, it was oddly appropriate that their pitcher sparked the offense. They scored their second run on a fielder's choice grounder, then two more when slumping Evan Longoria and sizzling Matt Joyce hit back-to-back doubles and Casey Kotchman tripled, but still fell short of 10 hits for a 10th straight game.
Shields, though, was so dazzling that one would have been enough. Featuring a changeup that simply baffled the Marlins and a curveball that was nearly as good, Shields allowed only three singles (in the second, seventh and eighth) and his lone walk with two outs in the ninth.
"Unbelievable," Joyce said. "Just another day he went out there and was absolutely dominant."
"He was money today," pitcher David Price said. "That was awesome."
"As good as the numbers," admitted Florida slugger Mike Stanton.
What made it better was how badly the Rays, having lost three straight and six of their past eight while in the middle of a rugged road trip that takes them to Detroit tonight, needed it.
"He wants to be that guy," manager Joe Maddon said. "He wants to be that guy. He doesn't run away from it.
"I know he's somewhat disappointed this year that he was moved to the second slot in the rotation. Not as a slight to David, he understood that, but I'm sure in the back of his mind he wants to work back to the top of a rotation. And I really respect him for that."
Shields, 29, has a lot to prove, coming off a 13-15, 5.18 season and being in the last guaranteed year of his contract (making $4.25 million, with a $7 million option for 2012), and he has been tremendously impressive, improving to 5-2 while lowering his ERA to 2.00.
"It feels really good," he said.
Sunday was just the latest example, and Shields was so good the only real question was whether Maddon would let him finish for the third time in his past seven starts as he entered the ninth with 105 pitches.
Maddon reasoned that Shields' previous three outings were in the reasonable 101-103 range, he hadn't been tested much Sunday except by the heat (87 degrees at first pitch) and, most of all, he deserved the opportunity.
So when Shields got the first two out, and was at 115, then walked Logan Morrison (and swiped the ground in frustration), Maddon gave in and gave him one more batter. And Shields struck out Gaby Sanchez to end it, tying Scott Kazmir's 2007 team mark of 13 strikeouts in a game.
"I wanted to finish it bad," Shields said.
In the initial aftermath, his arm wrapped in ice and his cheeks flushed from the heat, Shields made a big deal about getting his first career RBI (to go along with six hits, and what is now a .214 average).
Informed later it was actually his second (he had one here in 2008, a ground ball similarly misplayed by the shortstop), he responded via text message, "Oh well. Then 13Ks was my favorite thing."
Either way, it was a very good day.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.