ST. PETERSBURG — The stakes had never been higher.
The stage had never been bigger.
And when Rays right-hander James Shields took the mound to start the first playoff game in franchise history, even he — typically a picture of intensity to begin with — was more "amped up."
But what the Rays got in Thursday's American League Division Series opener against the White Sox was standard Shields: a gritty, resilient effort.
And, more important, a win.
"That's why we call him 'Big-game James,' " Rays reliever J.P. Howell said.
Shields bounced back from his one mistake — a three-run homer by Dewayne Wise in the third — to battle for 61/3 innings.
Shields "will occasionally give up a couple runs, like he did today, but he always settles in. Always," manager Joe Maddon said. "That just speaks to his intestinal fortitude, the fact he doesn't cave in. He's a tough guy."
Said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen: "Shields pitched a hell of a game."
Shields, who had never even attended a major-league playoff game, pitched like a veteran. The 26-year-old set the tone early, throwing six of his first seven pitches for strikes, putting together back-to-back 1-2-3 innings and drawing huge ovations from the sellout crowd of 35,041.
"I remember two years ago when we had about 10,000 fans here, we didn't get any standing ovations like that," Shields said. "So I'm going to take it all in. … This is a time in my life I need to enjoy every moment of it."
Shields gave up his only runs in the third. After giving up two singles, he got two outs before Wise stepped in. The 30-year-old outfielder, also making his postseason debut, hit a 2-and-2 pitch 368 feet for a three-run homer.
"I felt I made one bad pitch," Shields said. "Unfortunately, there were a couple runners on base and that's the way the game goes sometimes. I felt I did really well coming back late in the game."
Shields, whose knack for going late into games was one of the reasons Maddon gave him the Game 1 start, was hoping to get through the seventh. But after he gave up a single and a walk and hit A.J. Pierzynski with a cutter to load the bases, reliever Grant Balfour came in and thwarted the threat. Howell pitched a scoreless eighth and Dan Wheeler closed it out, but Howell said it was Shields who set the tone for the game, and maybe the series.
"The way he acts, his attitude is really contagious," Howell, 25, said. "I'm down there nervous, and I see him, I'm going, 'Phew, I can't be nervous.' He's not allowing himself, so I shouldn't. That's just the main thing, he sets the tone."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.