KANSAS CITY — Once, he was the best possible answer for his team. Once, the Rays would not think of going into a big game without him.
Once, he won a World Series game, something no other Ray has done. Once, the postseason rotation was built around him. Once, he was a snapping turtle, a competitive cuss who was going to pitch until the manager ripped the ball from his fingers.
These days, James Shields has become a mystery, and the number on his jersey might as well be a question mark. As in, how can the Rays possibly keep him in their playoff rotation?
As in, wouldn't you prefer to see Wade Davis? And Jeff Neimann? Or even Jeremy Hellickson?
As in, what in the world has become of the Shields we used to know? And isn't it time the Rays stopped trying to rediscover him?
Shields, not to mention the rest of the Rays, failed to measure up to the moment again Friday night. Together they flopped, and together they failed, and together they left you wondering about the future of their fellowship. After a 7-0 pounding by the Royals, it is easy to wonder if it is time to strip Shields of his slot in the rotation, of his reputation in the community and of the nickname that once made sense.
Big game? This was a big game. It shouldn't have been, of course, not if the Rays had taken care of the dessert portion of their schedule and wrapped up the AL East long ago. Instead, they have now lost four of five to the bottom-dwellers of the league, and the only relief is the knowledge that a playoff spot cannot be unclinched and the champagne cannot be poured back into the bottle.
Friday, it was up to Shields to stop all the silliness. He did not. It was time for him to assure people that his recent struggles could be overcome. He did not. It was time to make a final argument that he should be used early and often in the postseason. He didn't do that, either.
"It was a terrible job by me," Shields said. "No doubt about it."
After this one, there was only one thing to say:
At this point, how can you possibly argue that Shields deserves to start in the postseason? He has given up the most home runs in the league, and the most runs, and the most earned runs. He has given up the second-most hits, and he is 39th in ERA. He hasn't won a game since late August, and he hasn't made it as far as the seventh inning since mid August. The 12 hits he gave up to the Royals ties for his most ever.
In other words, Shields has not been very good very often, and most of the evidence you might use to try to defend him seems very old. His ERA is up to 5.18, and it is rising like your blood pressure.
At this point, how can you entrust something as valuable as a playoff game to Shields? To repeat, baseball is a meritocracy, and Shields has not provided enough evidence that he should stay in the rotation.
So, Shields was asked, would he start James Shields?
"Yeah," he said. "I'm a competitor. I'm a bulldog. Obviously, my numbers haven't shown this last month and, obviously, all year. But I still want the ball every fifth day. It isn't up to me."
If it was, Shields says, he has the confidence he could do the job.
"Absolutely," he said. "I'm confident I can get the job done no matter when or where. You just tell me where to go and when I'm pitching."
All along, you got the feeling the Rays were hoping Shields' performance would match his swagger, that he would somehow right himself and return to being the reassuring presence he once was. That Shields, the Rays could use.
Except for a couple of streaks this year, however, Shields hasn't been that pitcher. There are suggestions he is overthrowing, or throwing too many pitches, or falling out of line in his delivery. Whatever, the opposing batters keep leaving dents in the outfield walls.
Whatever, it is time for the Rays to stop waiting for him.
The Rays, of course, may disagree. They are meeting as a staff to discuss, among other things, what their playoff rotation will look like, and manager Joe Maddon always has put a premium on experience. That Shields has worked his way out of a few jams in postseason play may yet be enough to win him a slot over, say, Niemann.
This column will now pause so readers may moan.
Let's be honest. If baseball was a democracy, Rays fans would have voted Shields out of the rotation long ago. Too many home runs. Too many defeats. Too much September. When it comes to pitching, ERA is pretty much a polygraph and batting-average-against is truth serum. All in all, the American League pitching statistics are hostile witnesses against Shields.
So where does that leave the Rays rotation? With David Price, as often as possible. With Matt Garza, who had a decent start Thursday. With Davis, who has won seven of his past eight decisions. With Niemann, who has earned consideration his past two outings.
As for Shields, the question is no longer why he might not start in the postseason.
It's what the Rays are thinking to even consider it.