ST. PETERSBURG — More than the trade deadline passing, more than any of the other theories going around, more than anything, James Shields said, it was just time.
Time to stop being so predictable in his pitch selection. Time to make more use of his fastball. And time to start winning more.
And since taking the mound in Oakland six hours after the July 31 cutoff for nonwaiver deals, the right-hander has been doing exactly that, rolling off a fourth straight win Wednesday in leading the Rays to a 5-3 series-clinching victory over the Royals.
"The biggest thing was Shields," manager Joe Maddon said. "I thought he pitched really, really well."
The win — before a Tropicana Field crowd of 11,892, largest of the three-game series — was the Rays' 13th in 16 games, maintaining their lead in the American League wild-card race at 69-55 and moving them within three games of the East-leading Yankees, who lost to the White Sox.
Shields had the benefit of an early 2-1 lead thanks to another classic Rays "rally" in the third: two singles, an error, a hit batter, a sac fly by Ben Zobrist and a run-scoring single by Jeff Keppinger.
They added on from there: a run-scoring double by Ryan Roberts in the sixth; a mad dash and a headfirst slide into home by Sam Fuld after Zobrist's double in the seventh; a home run in the eighth over the centerfield fence and off the base of the restaurant by catcher Jose Lobaton, who, as with his first career homer July 25, was greeted by Luke Scott in the dugout with a serving of ice cream. Fernando Rodney finished for his MLB-leading 39th save.
Lobaton said he didn't care for the flavor, dulce de leche, but definitely appreciated the gesture. "I enjoyed it in that moment," Lobaton said. "I prefer the chocolate, but that was pretty good. I'll take it."
Shields (12-7, 4.01) maintained that the steady stream of trade rumors weren't an issue as he went 1-3, 6.15 over seven starts from late June to late July, that it was just around then that he, Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey decided to implement adjustments they had been discussing in his pitch selection while tightening up his delivery.
"I just wanted to change my game plan up a little bit," Shields said. "I was getting deep into counts, behind in counts, and I just wanted to be able to utilize (my fastball) more just to get ahead so I can use my offspeed pitches. There's no rhyme or reason really why I did it."
The change isn't that dramatic — Shields estimated it's only five-six more fastballs a game, the stat charts say it is more like 20 or so — but either way the results have been: In the five starts since, he is 4-0, 2.15, with 34 strikeouts and only three walks in 37⅔ innings, and the Rays have won all the games.
With about seven regular-season starts left, at this point what matters most to the Rays is that he keeps it up.
"I think he's gonna be like this the rest of the way," Maddon said. "He's really trending strongly right now."
"I just want to do my part in this equation," Shields said. "Hopefully, this next month-and-a-half I'm going to get my job done and do my job down the road, get us to the playoffs."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]