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Rays' Shields ready to live up to 'Big Game' nickname

Pitcher James Shields, who starts tonight’s ALCS Game 6 for the Rays, says he’s more than ready to live up to his nickname.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Pitcher James Shields, who starts tonight’s ALCS Game 6 for the Rays, says he’s more than ready to live up to his nickname.

ST. PETERSBURG — Considering his limited sleep, considering his limitless pressures, you would have to suggest that James Shields was stepping rather lively.

It was Friday afternoon, and Shields was moving quickly down the concrete corridors of Tropicana Field, walking and talking. All things considered, he seemed fairly intent doing both with speed.

The subject was tonight's game, of course, and Shields was speaking about how eager he was to get it started. He talked quickly, like an auctioneer, and the faster his words came, the faster his feet moved, until his vocal cords seemed to be running a race with his feet.

At the moment, it was as if Shields was in a hurry to get to game time as fast as he could.

Which, of course, was the point.

"I'm ready to go," Shields said, grinning. "I'm ready to pitch right now. Let's go. I was so fired up (Thursday) night watching Kaz (teammate Scott Kazmir) pitch, I was ready to pitch then."

Pretty much that is all you need to know about Shields. The Rays have never played in a more important game than tonight's ALCS Game 6. The bats of the Red Sox have awakened, the pressure is growing, the fans are restless, and the previous game finished like a nightmare.

And Shields?

The guy cannot wait.

And why not? His nickname is not Just Another Game Shields. It is not Medium-Size-Game Shields. His nickname is Big Game James.

Tonight, more than ever, the Rays need for him to live up to it.

"You're not going to be too good of a ballplayer if you can't live up to things," Shields said. "I want to be the guy who is a postseason pitcher. I want to be the guy who is a one or a two on the staff. That's who I am. I'm not going to change who I am."

Who Shields is — and Tampa Bay should know this by now — is a competitive cuss who seems to feed off the big moments. As pitchers go, he wants to be the one in the street at high noon, the one in the cockpit when the sky gets turbulent, the one cutting the bomb wires in the final scene of the James Bond movie. This time he can be the one to induce amnesia in the Rays when it comes to the Thursday night meltdown in Fenway Park.

By now you have relived Thursday's final three innings a thousand times, haven't you? You are haunted by flashbacks, and you fear you may wake up in a cold sweat with a vision of J.D. Drew swinging the bat behind your eyelids.

Shields, more than any other Ray, can cure that. If he is sharp early tonight, if he can get Tampa Bay into the familiar rhythm of a baseball game, he's going to calm a lot of nerves.

As for Shields, he seems amused by the all the questions about damaged psyches and the mood of the Rays. In other words, there is no falling sky to spackle.

"When it comes down to it, they have more pressure than we do," Shields, 26, said of the Red Sox. "They're the defending world champions. We're not. We finished last last year. We don't have as much pressure. We're here to have fun and to win a ball game. That's all."

At this point of the season, who else would you prefer to be on the mound for the Rays? There is a dependability to Shields. Of his past 12 starts, for instance, he has gone at least six innings in 11 of them. He has given up three runs or fewer nine times.

"There isn't another pitcher in the league I'd rather have going," reliever J.P. Howell said. "None. He loves it, and he wants it. To him, this is Christmas Eve."

"He thrives on this type of moment, you know?" said Matt Garza, who would start Game 7 if needed. "He is the guy who steps up and takes the energy and uses it toward his pitches. (The pressure) doesn't affect his outside emotion. It doesn't affect his game plan. He just uses it in a positive manner and takes it in the direction of home plate."

Funny thing, Shields' nickname. He has been called that for years, since a minor-league teammate named Chris Flynn — a fan of Lakers forward "Big Game" James Worthy — hung it on him. No one in Tampa Bay noticed for a while, however, perhaps because the Rays of old didn't play big games.

Thing is, Shields likes the nickname. To keep it, he will have to deliver in games such as this one. The Rays will either earn a trip to the World Series, or they will be forced into a loser-goes-home match Sunday night.

"If I didn't want to be out there," Shields said, "I should have picked another profession. I'm ready to go. I'm ready to take the next step in my career."

Big step. Big game. Big opponent.

Tonight, Big Game James attempts to measure up.

Rays' Shields ready to live up to 'Big Game' nickname 10/17/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 24, 2008 5:43pm]
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