A day after the Rays' starting pitcher Jeff Niemann failed to get into the fourth inning, The Rays were in serious jeopardy of a similar situation on Sunday. However, James Shields is an ace for a reason and Jeff Niemann is not. After registering the leadoff out, Shields got himself into a bit of trouble: Dustin Pedroia singled, David Ortiz walked, Kevin Youkilis singled to load the bases, and Boston finally scored on a J.D. Drew single to right field. At this point, the game could've gotten way out of hand, but Shields remained in control. He would Jason Bay to strikeout swinging (one of 10 swinging strikes he would get on the day), and ended the threat by getting Mike Lowell to fly out. Three hits, a walk, 30 pitches, but only one run given up.
Over the course of the next 6.1 innings, Shields would throw just 72 pitches and allowed just three hits and one run (J.P. Howell allowed the run to score). For Shields this is the typical Shieldsian starts we've become accustom to. He gets into trouble early, but typically limits the damage and keeps his team in the game. More importantly, he gets them deep into the game and saves the bullpen which is something Niemann couldn't do Saturday. James has failed to pitch into the seventh inning once this season (season opener) and has pitched at least seven innings in four of six starts.
Since revealing he was pitching with a dead arm for the first three starts of the season, Shields has been much better over his past three outings. Including today, he has pitched 21.1 innings since April 23rd and has given up six earned runs (2.55 ERA). He has also picked up his K's and is around 6.0 K/9 over the stretch.
Despite the increase in strikeouts over the past two weeks, Shields entered the game with a K/9 of 4.54 on the season. This is partly due to a lack of swinging strikes. Entering Sunday's game he had a swing strike percentage of 7.9% on the season. That number was 9.6% in 2008 and 10.6% in 2007. Obviously less swinging strikes are going to lead to less K's. Today, Shields got his swinging strike on. As mentioned above he got 10 swinging strikes overall (~10.0%), and all six of his strikeouts ended with a swinging strike including several on his change up.
Speaking of the change up, Shields went to his bread and butter pitch around 27% this afternoon. This is up from 23.2% on the season and may be a sign that he needs to be throwing it more. Along with the change up, Shields featured a four seam fastball 36% of the time. He also threw in a few two seamers and lot fewer cutters. According to pitch f/x, he threw just three cutters which is way off the 14% he's been averaging. After watching Andy Sonnanstine struggle with the cutter, I'm starting to like the pitch less and less unless you're name is Mariano Rivera.
When the Rays needed him the most, Shields delivered. The Red Sox could've easily taken firm control of the game in the first inning and possibly earned a split after losing the first two games of the series. However, Shields stepped up his game along with Carl Crawford. The two took control of the game and handed the Rays their second series victory against the Red Sox and their second series victory overall.
Once again, a "Big Game" for Shields.