For one night at least, "Big Game James" was back in peak form. And oh man, it was awesome to watch.
Without a doubt, that was the best I've seen James Shields pitch in a few years. Shields has had his ups and downs in recent seasons -- with more downs than ups of late -- and in general he's slowly declined over the previous few seasons. He can still pitch a good game and he's underrated by most fans, but last season in particular his location suffered and many of his pitches were hit hard as a result. Shields still didn't walk many batters, but he'd leave pitches over the middle of the plate instead and let up a large number of homeruns. But last night -- oh, last night was something special.
Shields started off the game blazing, working primarily his fastball and slider against Juan Pierre and Gordon Beckham before switching to his change-up for Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko. He did let up a single that inning and it took him 19 pitches to get the first three outs, but after that Shields was absolutely cruising; it took him only 105 pitches to throw a complete game, and he only let up four total hits while striking out nine and walking one. This was his first complete game since June 10, 2008 -- just under three years ago -- and it was his best start since May 9, 2008. On that day in May, Shields pitching a complete game one-hitter, striking out eight Angels while walking none, allowing no runs, and throwing only 92 pitches. That was undoubtedly Shields' best start of his career; last night's performance was possibly his second-best.
The White Sox did get a run in the top of the fifth inning when Carlos Quentin doubled and A.J. Pierzynski singled him home, but that was the only time the Sox would have a runner in scoring position until the end of the game. In the ninth, Juan Pierre reached second base via a single and a sacrifice bunt, but then Shields struck out Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko to end the game with an exclamation point.
Up until this game, Shields' 2011 season has been a mixed bag. While his ERA was below four, his peripheral statistics weren't as rosy: he'd struck out less than five batters per nine, he'd allowed a high percentage of extra base hits, and his 4.78 FIP was one of the worst on the Rays' staff. As R.J. Anderson pointed out, Shields has been relying less on his fastball and cutter this season, but he'd also been falling behind in counts more often and the overall results were not inspiring.
Last night, Shields continued to mix his pitches up, throwing nearly as many change-ups (24) and curveballs (22) as four-seam fastballs (27). He only threw six first-pitch balls, most of them toward the beginning of the game, and he went to his changeup almost exclusively against opposite handed batters like Adam Dunn. He generated swinging strikes on all of his pitches, getting a total of 13% swinging strikes on the evening. He did still leave a large number of balls over the middle of the plate, but whether it was because of his pitch selection or what, the White Sox couldn't take advantage. After knocking Shields around for eight hits and three homeruns two weeks ago, the Sox couldn't get anything off him last night.
I know it's still early, but when you combine this start with Shields' first start of the season (7 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 7 K), it's tough not to be somewhat optimistic. Who will we see more of this season: Big Game James or Yields? I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
Other Game Notes:
- Once again, the Rays somehow scraped enough runs across to win the game, despite the fact that their lineup is lacking some serious punch. Zobrist had a nice day, getting two hits including a triple in the first inning, and Sean Rodriguez smacked a triple and a double from the three hole. And hey, Matt Joyce got a hit against a tough lefty? That was really nice to see.
- I still can't believe Casey Kotchman somehow legged out two infield hits. Watching him run down the first base line was so painful; that man is so slow.