ST. PETERSBURG — The only positive in the mess James Shields is in is that both he and the Rays say there's nothing wrong physically, that his arm feels fine, and he's throwing normally.
It's just when the white ball comes out of his hand that there's a problem, as his pitches are getting hit at a stunning and record-threatening rate.
Sunday, it was 11 hits over five tattered innings as the Rays lost again to the Red Sox 7-3. That makes four straight starts with 10 or more hits allowed, the roughest stretch by an American League pitcher in nearly five years, for a total of 45 hits in 26? innings and a major-league-most 146 for the season.
"Of course it's frustrating," Shields said. "I'm not doing my job right now. Bottom line is I got to get better."
That makes "How?" the next-biggest question, but it's hard to find a solution when the cause of the problem isn't clear.
Shields believes it's a small issue: a matter of just missing, by as little as an inch, with certain pitches, putting him into compromising counts, along with balls finding holes behind him.
"Just not making my pitches, that's all," Shields said. "I just got to do a better job of making my pitches, not walking guys and getting guys in scoring position and try to minimize my damage."
Manager Joe Maddon has a few other theories: that Shields is throwing too many pitches early in games instead of getting quick outs; that he's using too many different pitches instead of sticking to his primary arsenal of fastball, curve and changeup; that he's trying to be too fine; that he's not getting the ball exactly where he wants it to go.
"It's just unable to execute what he'd like to do," Maddon said. "Maybe trying to do a little too much, like everybody else is trying to do right now."
And like the team, which has lost 11 of 17 to drop to 46-43, what started as a season of great promise for Shields, 5-0 with a 3.05 ERA through six starts, has quickly turned into one of concern, as he has gone 3-6 with a 5.14 ERA over 13 starts since for an 8-6, 4.44 ERA composite.
Shields, who was 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA and third in the AL Cy Young voting last year, doesn't see a need for major change: "Stick with my routine. My body is feeling great. Just keep grinding it out. I'm sure it'll get better, so I'm not worried about it."
After Shields allowed a run Sunday in a 29-pitch first inning, his teammates broke through for three against Boston's Josh Beckett and handed him a 3-1 lead.
Maddon acknowledged, "I felt kind of good about that."
But Shields gave it back, and more, leaving after five innings down 6-3. He retired only 14 of the 27 batters he faced, notching first-pitch strikes to only 10 and throwing 113 pitches total (more than in four of his complete-game wins last season). He became the first AL pitcher to allow double-digit hits in four straight games since Oakland's Dan Haren in September 2007 and the first Ray since Tanyon Sturtze in 2002, two shy of Albie Lopez's 2001 record.
For the Rays to get anywhere, or for them to get anything appealing in a trade if they drop out of the race, they need Shields to fix things.
"He is a big part of what we do," Maddon said. "Last year at this time, all the platitudes were just jumping all over the place. He was getting complete games, like 110, 115 pitches max. And if you remember in your minds' eye, doing it a lot more easily; better counts, getting ahead in the count, kind of a simple approach. I think definitely, if he's done it in the past, he can do it again. It's just a matter of whomever the athlete is just to really recognize the adjustments they want to make, and they go ahead and make them."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.
They must be onto him
James Shields is finding 2012 tougher:
4 Consecutive starts allowing 10 or more hits.
6 Starts, of 19 overall, allowing 10 or more hits.
9 Starts, of 19, in which he has allowed a first-inning run.
146 Hits allowed, most in the majors.
.290 Batting average allowed, compared to .215 in 2011.
.344 Batting average allowed on balls in play, compared to .258 in 2011.