In this 'what have you done for me lately?' era, James Shields has not done much. In his last 11 appearances (10 starts, 1 relief), Shields has an ugly 7.13 ERA/5.38 FIP (fielding independent pitching). Outrageous as it may sound, some have even called for Shields, who is a top-40 trade chip according to Dave Cameron, to be traded.
On the other hand, in Shields' first 10 starts he carried a 2.99 ERA/3.44 FIP. He also registered 71 strikeouts in 69.1 innings. Baseball is a game of ups and downs. While Shields was probably pitching a little over his head during those first 10 starts, he is certainly not as bad as his last 10.
Shields has been the Rays' best, and most consistent, starter for the past three seasons. Anybody calling for his head after a handful of starts has just lost sight of the process. As R.J. Anderson points out, when in doubt, go with the larger sample size.
Tonight, Shields looked a bit more like he did in the first 10 starts than the previous 10.
The Rays' righty lasted 6.2 innings - scattering nine hits while allowing two runs. He had a 7:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and was lifted after 102 pitches (71 strikes). Much has been made about Shields' struggles with the fastball this year. Meanwhile, on this night he did a good job of keeping the heater down in the bottom half of the zone. Shields also had a good breaking ball as he threw a combined 35 sliders and curveballs with 24 falling for strikes.
Shields was good, however, he was just one part of this pretty amazing game.
For the Rays, the game started off on the wrong foot; literally. B.J. Upton left the game in the top of the first with a sprained left ankle. He's been listed as day-to-day. After the game, Joe Maddon said it would be 2-3 days before we know more. With Upton out, the Rays moved Ben Zobrist to center field and summoned Reid Brignac off the bench to play second.
Offensively, the Rays didn't do much against Justin Verlander, but former Detroit Tiger Carlos Pena put the team on the board with a two-run home run to deep center in the bottom of the first inning. After Detroit tied the game at 2-2 in the top of the sixth, another former Tiger, Matt Joyce a.k.a. Matty Nice, came through with a broken bat RBI to put the Rays up for good in the bottom half of the inning. The kid is a ball player!
The game really made an interesting turn in the top half of the seventh inning. James Shields departed with a runner on first and two outs, Joe Maddon called on Randy Choate to face the human vuvuzela, Johnny Damon. After Damon reached on a single, the Tigers had arguably the game's best hitter in Miguel Cabrera coming to the plate with two on and two out. Behind Cabrera was left-handed rookie Brennan Boesch. Maddon elected to walk Cabrera to load the bases and set up the lefty-on-lefty match up...or so we thought.
Instead of leaving Choate in to face Boesch, Maddon called on Grant Balfour with the bases loaded and the lefty due up. Boesch has just under 320 career plate appearances (PAs), but is killing left-handed pitching this year. In 79 PAs against southpaws, his OPS is 1.224 and his wOBA is .515. At the same time, Balfour has been very good against lefties - entering the game with a 1.84 FIP against LHB in 2010. Both are relatively small sample sizes, but Maddon told Bright House Sports Network's JB Long, he had to make the move.
This is the exact kind of move that make people love/hate Maddon. On the surface it seemed so unconventional. But when you dig a little bit deeer, the process makes sense. The result wasn't bad either. Balfour struck out Boesch on three pitches and even let out a STFD as he walked off the mound.
Following Balfour's heroics, Joaquin Benoit worked an easy eighth inning - striking out the side. After Benoit's exit, the ninth inning was anything but easy. After registering the first out, Rafael Soriano loaded the bases on a double, single, walk. This brought up Miguel Cabrera with the bases loaded and one out.
True to form, Soriano showed no emotion on the mound. On his 33rd pitch of the night, and sixth to Cabrera, MFIKY induced an amazing 5-4-3 double play to end the game. The play started by Evan Longoria, turned at second by Reid Brignac, and finished by Carlos Pena was one you have to see to appreciate. Words truly can't describe the awesomeness of the play, but I think Todd Kalas calling it a walk-off double play might do it justice. It was that good.
Oh and did I mention there was also a bang-bang play at the plate involving John Jaso recovering a lost ball in the dirt and Shields applying the tag at home?
The win puts the Rays 23 games over .500 - a season's best. In addition to the Rays win, the Cleveland Indians handled the New York Yankees tonight, leaving Tampa Bay two games behind in the East. As I woke up this morning, I thought about Matt Garza's no-hitter and said "that really happened." I have a feeling when I wake up tomorrow I'll say, "Yeah, that really happened too."