Commentary

Rays' Shields thriving on Game 2 opportunity

Updated: October 23, 2008, 12:39 PM ET
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When James Shields takes the mound on Thursday night, he's going to feel anxious and nervous. But Shields knows his place in this Rays rotation. It's as a big-game pitcher, and it's here, at Tropicana Field, as the eldest member of the team's starting rotation.

Shields is only 26 years old, but it's not just in years that he shows his maturity. Of all the talented young pitchers, it is perhaps Shields who has the surest game plan and the best composure.

"I'm the type of pitcher that I want that ball," Shields said. "I thrive on that; I thrive on getting that ball."

He has done so four times this postseason, and is 1-2 with a 3.72 ERA. He has lost his last two starts, and will take the mound on Thursday night in Game 2 looking to help his team avoid going to Philadelphia down 0-2 in the World Series.

"This is the guy you want out on the hill," said teammate Evan Longoria.

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His chances of evening this series are far better since it's at Tropicana Field, where the right-hander went 9-2 with a 2.59 ERA during the regular season. When Shields gave up a solo home run to Jason Varitek in Game 6 of the ALCS, it was Varitek's first hit in the series. It gave the Red Sox a bigger cushion in the game, and it enraged Shields. He yelled at himself and was visibly upset. Boston went on to win, forcing a Game 7 while Shields was the losing pitcher.

"I felt it was my job, my duty on this team to shut them down, and I didn't get the job done," Shields said. "I'm an emotional pitcher. … Everyone gets mad; if you don't have some intensity out there, you're not a ballplayer."

Brian Anderson has been working with the pitchers all season for the Rays. He was trying to make the team out of spring training, until he blew out his arm for the final time. He said he counsels all of the pitchers, in varying degrees. He said Shields has needed his counsel the least because of his game plan, his preparation, his confidence. He also said it's because of his changeup, and how he builds his approach around what Anderson calls "his equalizer." He also said that when Shields does get emotional, it's for a good reason, and most often in important moments.

"When he feels like it's a big situation and he doesn't execute like he's used to, you will see that from him," Anderson said. "The good thing about him is that he's usually able to dismiss it very quickly. When he does it, you know he's going to come back and get back into the flow of the game."

James Shields
Kim Klement/US PresswireJames Shields' nickname is "Big Game James," but he's 1-2 with a 3.72 ERA this postseason.
Before the game, Anderson spoke about the potential psychology of this series. He said that this series reminded him of 1999 when he was with the Diamondbacks facing the Mets in the first round. The D-backs had home-field advantage and they had their ace, Randy Johnson, going in the first game against Mets starter Masato Yoshii.

They figured the series was theirs. Instead, the Mets came out and beat Johnson in the first game, and went on to sweep.

"We lost that [first] game," Anderson said, "and it turned that whole series right on its sphere."

The Phillies had their ace, Cole Hamels, going on Wednesday night. And while the Phillies didn't have home-field advantage, Anderson said he thought they were likely feeling like they had the advantage.

"They're well-rested; they've got to feel pretty good about this," he said. "If this is a game we go out and take and all of a sudden, now they're like, 'Oh no, you've got Shields coming; you've got [Matt] Garza coming [in Game 3]'."

Well, that didn't happen for the Rays, and now Brett Myers will start for the Phillies. His 5.25 postseason ERA would have been the worst among Phillies starters were it not for Jamie Moyer's 13.50 mark. Yet batters are hitting only .182 off Myers, and he's struck out 10 and walked seven.

Myers admits to being an emotional pitcher.

"It's been emotional at this point already," Myers said. "I'm just going to try and take it as just another game. But sometimes you get out there, your emotions are going to get in the way sometimes. It's just how you control them."

He was forced to do so when he was sent down to the minors earlier this year. While at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, he consulted with his first pitching coach, Rod Nichols, whom Myers considers a friend. Nichols knows Myers' mechanics, and how to talk to him to get him to focus on his pitching.

"He really challenged me mentally and physically," Myers said. "He made the game fun again."

It hasn't always been fun for Shields, who's been with the Tampa Bay organization for eight years. But this year was different; he was the ace of the team, and one whose nickname "Big Game James" was earned. He'll try to do it at least one more time.

"This is an exciting time in our lives and it's like a dream come true," he said. "I'm going to be anxious, and I'm going to be ready to go."

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.