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World Series Tampa Bay Rays: Finally, Shields lives up to nickname

ST. PETERSBURG — It could have been in Aberdeen, Md., Batavia, N.Y., or Lowell, Mass.

Or maybe it was somewhere in California, in Lake Elsinore, Visalia or Rancho Cucamonga.

All these years later, the details are a little fuzzy. Few can recall the exact moment when a pair of minor-leaguers named Chris Flinn and Matt Rico began referring to their teammate as "Big Game James."

All we know for sure is that on a Thursday night in October — far from the quaint stadiums in the New York-Penn League and the quiet summer evenings in the California League — the world finally found out what Flinn and Rico knew long ago.

James Shields has got some Big Game in him after all.

For the moment, the mocking has ceased. No more snide remarks about a nickname that had not been earned. No more wisecracks about a guy with an 0-2 record in the American League Championship Series. For in Game 2 of the World Series against the Phillies, Shields was as big as the Rays needed him to be.

"I've been watching it all year, he's been like that," said centerfielder B.J. Upton. "They call him Big Game James for a reason. He knew we needed this one, and he went out and pitched a hell of a ball game."

You know this one had the potential for disaster. The Rays were looking at the possibility of falling behind 0-2 and heading to Philadelphia without knowing whether there would be another game at Tropicana Field in 2008.

And though the offense was better than in Game 1, Tampa Bay hitters did not exactly come to the rescue Thursday. They did not have an extra-base hit, and three of their RBIs came on balls that did not leave the infield.

No, in the most important night in franchise history, the Rays left it up to Shields to shoulder the load. And Big Game James carried them back to a 1-1 split in the 104th World Series.

"You saw his confidence tonight," said pitcher Matt Garza. "He said, 'This is my stuff. Try to beat me.' "

Shields was not spectacular. And he did not go as deep in the game as we have come to expect. But he was good enough, throwing 52/3 shutout innings, working out of jam after jam, and leaving Phillies hitters wondering where they went wrong.

This is what a big-game pitcher does, even if his nickname is a little ahead of his reputation. Flinn and Rico hung the Big Game James name on Shields — it was a nod to former Lakers great James Worthy — as endearment and joke.

"We didn't have the best teams in the minors, but we had a lot of characters," said catcher Shawn Riggans. "We're out at the yard one day, we'd lost five, six games in a row, and Shieldsy shows up and throws a real nice game for us, and we finally won. From that day on, it was Big Game James. I don't remember exactly — it could have been 2003 or 2004 — but it's been a while.

"And I swear to you now, every time you hear the guys on ESPN saying Big Game James, Matt Rico and Chris Flinn, wherever they are, have big smiles on their faces. That was us, man. We just had fun."

The nickname was fine when Shields was a prospect and nobody outside the organization knew what his teammates were calling him. But it brought out the snarky side of critics and columnists when they first heard other Rays referring to him as Big Game James this month.

How could a 26-year-old pitching for a historically awful franchise come by a name so regal? What had he done to live up to this kind of billing?

The truth is, Shields has been the pitcher the Rays have always turned to in their darkest moments. His stuff is not as impressive as Scott Kazmir's, and not as explosive as Garza's, but Shields has been the steadiest Ray of all. When Tampa Bay was clinging to an AL East lead, it was Shields who went 5-1 down the stretch.

After Thursday night's outing, Shields is now 2-2 with a 2.88 ERA in the postseason. He beat the White Sox in the ALDS and then lost Games 1 and 6 to Boston in the ALCS. Shields was not exceptional in either start against the Red Sox but got only two runs in support.

So, yes, Shields still had something to prove when he took the mound against the Phillies in Game 2. And maybe verification was a long time coming, but Shields never doubted for a minute it would.

Did Flinn and Rico know what they were talking about? "I guess they did," Shields said, grinning. "It kind of started as a joke, but I loved it. It told me what my teammates thought of me, and that's the guy I wanted to be.

The reputation may have begun in some long forgotten minor-league games in some nondescript minor-league towns, but Big Game James showed up Thursday night in the World Series.

World Series Tampa Bay Rays: Finally, Shields lives up to nickname 10/24/08 [Last modified: Saturday, October 25, 2008 8:11pm]
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