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This time, James Shields gets support from Tampa Bay Rays offense

ST. PETERSBURG — The way Sunday's start played out for Rays RHP James Shields, it was tough for him to describe what was going well.

But when Shields fell behind to the Mariners, 3B Evan Longoria said he went up to him and offered encouragement.

"I said, 'If you can keep us right here, we're going to win this game for you,' " Longoria said.

Considering Shields had bailed out Rays hitters many times this season (they've scored two runs or fewer in 10 of his 26 starts), they were happy they could return the favor Sunday, when the All-Star allowed seven runs and 12 hits, including a tying two-run homer in the eighth.

"For the most part this year, our starters have picked up the offense," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "(Sunday), the offense picked up the starter. I think it's great."

Maddon said Shields didn't have his best stuff early, specifically his fastball command, but started throwing better changeups as the game wore on and hung in to last 71/3 innings.

Shields has struggled this year against Seattle, which is last in the majors in batting average (.232) and runs (423). In two starts, he has allowed them to hit .358 (including six of his 21 homers) and score 15 runs (14 earned).

"With a little bit more experience, they're going to be a pretty tough team to beat in the next few years," Shields said.

UNSUNG STAR: Maddon has talked about rookie LF Desmond Jennings' instincts on the bases, and a prime example came on DH Johnny Damon's three-run double in the seventh.

Damon's blast, which went off the top of the rightfield fence and bounced back into play, was originally called a home run. But Jennings, starting from first, hustled to put himself in position where the umpires granted him home after the replay review. (As part of the replay rule, umpires can put runners at the base they believe they would have reached.)

"A lot of guys would not be in that trail position, that close, in order to score right there," Maddon said. "The fact that Desmond did what he did was outstanding."

Overlooked: Tigers RHP Justin Verlander garners more of the hype when it comes to tonight's matchup with Rays RHP Jeff Niemann. After all, Verlander is a leading Cy Young candidate.

"His arm," Niemann said, "is second to none."

Maddon said Niemann is far from second fiddle, having gone 7-0 in his 10 starts since coming off the disabled list in mid June.

"When Jeffrey is on top of his game, which he is right now, I'd put him up against anybody," Maddon said. "He's got one of the best curveballs in the league. He's got a split. He's got an unhittable angle. Right now, his confidence is up, so yeah, I feel good about it.

"Not taking anything away from (Verlander), my point is on any given day, if that's the matchup seven days in a row, I don't know how that's going to turn out. I think Jeff's that good."

Niemann said it will be fun to go up against Verlander, who leads the American League in wins and strikeouts.

"You know the runs are going to be at a premium," he said. "And it does bring out the best in you."

HIGH PRAISE: While Mariners RHP Michael Pineda, who started Sunday, is a top rookie of the year candidate, Maddon believes Rays RHP Jeremy Hellickson "is right in the mix" with him and Angels 1B Mark Trumbo.

And having watched Hellickson, 24, beat his team three times this season, Seattle manager Eric Wedge is a believer, too.

"I think for a young pitcher, he's as impressive as anybody in regards to the way he keeps the ball down," Wedge said. "The only time he elevates is when he wants to elevate; climb the ladder with that fastball. He's down, down, down and down.

"Got a great changeup; probably not as good as the changeup (as Shields), but it's pretty good. He looks very mature for his age and experience level."

Playing big: The New Tampa Little League All-Stars, who reached the Southeast Regional final, took batting practice at the Trop before Sunday's game.

This time, James Shields gets support from Tampa Bay Rays offense 08/21/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 21, 2011 9:53pm]
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