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Tampa Bay Rays' James Shields in control again

ST. PETERSBURG

There were zeroes in front of him. Alas, there were zeroes behind him. There for a while it seemed as if there might be zeroes until the weekend was over.

In the career of James Shields, isn't that always the case?

When you talk about the beast of the Rays pitching rotation, this is Shields' natural habitat. The game is always close, and it's always late in the game, and he has always confounded opposing hitters, and for some reason he always receives the kind of run support that suggests his teammates might be slightly ticked at him.

Always, it seems, Shields has to hang around until his teammates' bats wake up.

Some nights — such as Saturday, for instance — that seems to take a while.

Shields was at it again Saturday night, dazzling the Twins, keeping them off-balance in a 4-1 victory. He gave up only five hits, and he went eight innings for the third straight game. In case anyone doubts it anymore, he pitched like one of the premier pitchers in the American League.

The hard part? Once again Shields managed to keep his team in the game when it appeared it might not score again until May.

In other words, it was just a routine day at the office for the 30-year-old.

That's the amazing thing about Shields. Most nights he has the margin for error of a tightrope walker performing surgery. One slip and it's over.

There is something about the sight of Shields on the mound that turns every bat in the stadium — those of the opponent and those of his teammates — into sawdust. Is there another pitcher in baseball who has pitched more innings with more zeroes over his shoulder? This was the third straight start for Shields in which the game went into the seventh inning before the Rays scored. Somehow the Rays won them all.

By now, of course, Shields should be used to it. The Rays have scored fewer runs for him than any starter this year. And last year. And the year before that.

Consider this: Over the past four seasons, Shields has started 102 games. The Rays have scored three runs or fewer in 60 of those starts.

Still, he competes.

Still, he wins.

Still, he walks off the field to ovations.

More than anything, this is what makes Shields a terrific pitcher. There is something hard inside of him, something fierce and competitive. It doesn't matter how many runs his team scores, and it doesn't matter how many pitches he has to throw, and it doesn't matter who the opponent is, and it doesn't matter if doing it the hard way is required.

No, he doesn't throw as hard as the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, and Hernandez doesn't throw as hard as the Tigers' Justin Verlander. But these days, Shields is in the same neighborhood. When you talk about the finest pitchers in the AL, Shields has grinded his way into the conversation.

"If he's not right there, he's that close," said reliever J.P. Howell, holding his thumb and forefinger a quarter-inch apart. "To me, this is his team. He's the 'Ray Way.' He's the motto. When I came here, he was the first example I saw of what being mentally tough was. I didn't learn that anywhere else. I learned it from him."

For manager Joe Maddon, Shields has a little more work to do before he can be considered with the best. But only a little.

"He's morphing into that," Maddon said. "Part of it is that he doesn't shy away from it. He wants to be that guy. He believes he is. I wouldn't necessarily put him there, but he's pretty close.

"He's tough. He doesn't shy away from any hitter. He's got a plan for everyone."

If you wish to judge pitchers by the radar gun, okay, Shields doesn't have the high heat some do. But he has a good fastball, and perhaps the best changeup in the league, and a curveball that is better than most people acknowledge. When all of them are working, he can be an unpleasant test for a hitter.

"Everyone wants to be that player," Shields said.

As for the run support? Shields learned to block that out long ago. He will tell you it doesn't bother him, that his job is to give his team a chance. Lately, he's done that.

Take the fourth inning, when Shields found himself pitching with a runner on third. Against Danny Valencia, Shields threw a 94 mph fastball (strike), an 82 mph curveball (strike), an 87 mph change (ball), another 87 mph change (foul), a 92 mph cutter (foul) and an 86 mph change (strikeout) to end the inning. In other words, Shields is a multiple-choice question these days.

On this team, he is also the calming influence, one of those he-can-land-the-plane kind of guys.

"He could land it," Maddon said, "because he believes he could land it."

Howell grinned at that.

"No chance," he said. "But he would make me feel better about it while we were going down. I'd smile in the face of fear. That's what Shields does. He smiles in the face of fear."

These days, Shields makes a lot of people smile. The fans. The teammates. The manager.

As it turns out, that's one of his pitches, too.

Tampa Bay Rays' James Shields in control again 04/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 21, 2012 11:53pm]
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