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James Shields Implodes; Rays Lose 8-5 to White Sox

It's not often that James Shields is ineffective in a start, but last night was an absolute firestorm*. It was evident from the very first inning that Shields did not have his best stuff, as he let up three hits - single, double, single - before recording the first out of the game. After getting out of the first while allowing two earned runs, Shields seemed to settle down and hold himself together okay, only letting up a solo homerun to Alex Rios in the top of the third inning. Shields lost a chunk of velocity (~2 MPH) as the game went along, though, and in the sixth inning, everything went to hell. 

*I know that the word "firestorm" is usually used in reference to a controversy, but I love the imagery it inspires. When I think firestorm, I picture balls of fire raining down from an apocalyptic red sky thick with jet black clouds. People are running through the streets, screaming as their houses burst into flames around them, but it's no good - this is a storm you can't escape. People are falling left and right, knocked over by the force of the fireballs and immediately succumbing to the enveloping fire.  A man gets hit in the back with a fireball, knocking him face-first into the sidewalk as his body is engulfed with flames. Minutes later, all that's left is ash.

Anyway, that's where my mind goes when I think about Shields's start last night. Melodramatic? Maybe, but I find it a fun image nonetheless.

The Rays tied the game at three in the bottom of the fifth inning and entering the sixth inning, I was hoping that Shields would hold together well enough to get through six inning with the score still tied. At this point in the game, though, Shields couldn't get batters to swing and miss at any pitches and batters weren't chasing his change-up out of the zone, forcing him to leave pitches out over the plate. It didn't take long for the Sox to score: Shields loaded the bases with a walk, a single, and a hit by pitch, and then Jayson Nix crushed a grand slam to left field. And although the Rays mounted small rallies in the next few innings, that blast effectively ended the game.

If there's any good news to take away from tonight, it's that this game is over and done with. Over the past four seasons, Shields has had exactly one start per year where he's let up more than seven earned runs, so at least we've got that unpleasantness out of the way (that's how it works, right?).

Offensively, the Rays were the victims of some poor luck, getting robbed from rallies on three separate occasions:

  • In the fifth inning, the Rays have a rally going and John Jaso is at the plate. The Rays have already scored two runs in the inning and they have runners on second and third with two outs. Jaso works the count to 3-1 and then takes a pitch that to my eye, looked to be a good deal outside. The ump calls it a strike, though, and Jaso flies out to end the inning on the next pitch. Brooks Baseball confirms that the pitch was a good 3-4 inches off the plate. A walk wouldn't have scored a run in this case, but it would have extended the inning at least.
  • Bottom of the sixth inning, runners at first and third with two outs. Evan Longoria is at the plate and he grounds it weakly to Paul Konerko at first base. Konerko takes it himself and attempts to cut Longoria off and tag him before he reaches first. Longoria tries to evade him and he slides into first base, but Konerko grazes Longo with his glove. The ump calls Longoria out and the rally is over. The problem? Replay showed that Konerko had the ball in his bare hand when he tagged Longo, making Longoria safe at first.
  • Bottom of the seventh inning, runner on second with two outs. BJ Upton comes to the plate and turns on an inside 94 MPH fastball (!!), driving it deep to left field. Juan Pierre makes a leaping grab at the wall, stealing a double away from Upton, but only after a fan knocks the ball into his glove.

I hope this doesn't come across as pointless complaining about bad calls, because that's not the point. The two umping decisions were close calls that could have gone one way or the other; to be honest, instant replay is the only way an umpire would ever call Longoria safe on a play like that. The Rays got unlucky last night, though, and there's not much you can do about that. I don't like playing the "if" game, so let's just leave it at that - the Rays got a bit unlucky.

In a season that's been mostly one positive thing after another, last night was (as FreeZo put it), "a disappointing loss at the end of a disappointing homestretch". Shake it off, let it go, and let's make everything better by winning this next series.