PORT CHARLOTTE — The rewards for the extensive efforts James Shields put into last season piled up nicely.
His first All-Star selection. A team-high 16 victories. The team MVP award. A third-place finish in the American League Cy Young Award voting. The $8 million contract option the Rays picked up without a flinch.
Friday, manager Joe Maddon added another, announcing that Shields would be the starter for the April 6 opener against the Yankees.
"It's definitely gratifying," Shields said. "I put a lot of hard work in last year. To be recognized, to get the opening day nod this year is pretty special."
Shields started the openers in 2008, '09 and '10, but this one will be different given what went into reclaiming the honor. (As well as what it means now that Shields turned 30 in December: the end of the Rays' major-league-record streak of 674 consecutive games started by pitchers younger than 30.)
Watching David Price open last season was the final reminder of Shields' disappointing and frustrating 2010 performance, in which he went 13-15 and posted a 5.18 earned-run average. He worked out fiendishly throughout the winter and worked hard at refining his delivery last spring. The payoff was impressive: a 16-12 record, 2.82 ERA, major-league-best 11 complete games and team-record 249 1/3 innings.
Maddon said the reasons for the turnaround can be broken down relatively simply: "His delivery was better, and his delivery permitted him to throw balls where he wanted to more consistently. His pitch-choice selection was better where he was using a better mix in regard to counts, etc., and he wasn't as predictable (for example, using his curve more.)
"And the last component would be just a little better luck on balls in play. His balls in play (batting average) from the previous year was incredibly high (.344) and last year probably came back to a more normal number (.260), so a little better baseball luck than he had the year before.
"And then, of course, there's that internal thing with him that you can never gauge. He just really wants to do well. He has a tremendous work ethic. And I know it probably ate at him pretty heavily the previous offseason.
"So I think all those things were factors."
Shields agreed with most of the assessment, except the bit about being less predictable.
"I don't like that word," he said. "I kind of like more or less staying consistent with my delivery, staying consistent with my mechanics, staying consistent with my workouts in between starters. Just really hone in on being consistent and going deep into games — that's what I pride myself on."
The challenge now for Shields is to prove that 2011 is more representative of him than 2010, which Maddon called "the anomaly year." With some breaks (and more runs), Shields could be a regular candidate for 20 wins, he said. "The way James goes about his business, he has only one speed. When it comes to prep work and how he competes, he just goes all out. So yeah, without any kind of physical malady, he's going to be right there every year."
Last spring Shields had a specific goal, telling Maddon he wanted to pitch deeper into games and finish what he started. This year, he said, there are no such targets.
"Last year was a great year; I'm going to move on and try to start this season off right," Shields said. "You always can strive to get better. Without putting too much pressure on myself, I'm just going to go out there, throw my normal 200-plus innings a year — try to get that — and see how the year goes."
It will start April 6 around 3:10 p.m.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]
A look at the Rays' opening day starters: