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James Shields has best start of his career, sets Rays single-game strikeout record

Last night, James Shields had the best start of his career -- which, coincidentally, was arguably the best pitched game in Rays franchise history. Unfortunately, he took the loss.

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

As fun as the Rays' win streak has been over the last few weeks, there's been one major downside to them being in the hunt for the playoffs right up until the last moment: I haven't had nearly enough time to process that the season is coming to a close, and that after tonight, there will be no more Rays baseball for close to six months. This isn't an experience any of us have had to cope with in recent memory, considering the Rays have made the playoffs three of the last four seasons, and they were eliminated from contention considerably earlier in 2009.

And man, it sucks.

With the Rays being eliminated from playoff contention on Monday night, I've found myself to be a ball of unpredictable, turbulent emotions. I wasn't expecting myself to get sentimental regarding any of the players, as most of the team will be back next year and I've already mentally come to terms with B.J. Upton becoming a free agent. But then, listening to the game last night, I felt this weird emotion bubbling up inside my chest. Anticipatory sadness? A little bit of grief and loss, and a little bit of happiness? I obviously didn't fully appreciated how much I would miss James Shields until last night.

To be fair, there's no guarantee that Shields will enter the 2013 season on another team besides the Rays. It's all speculation and reasoned guesswork at this point, but he is one of the Rays best trade chips and he is set to make $9 million next year. Maybe he'll be traded and maybe he won't be -- for the record, my money is on that he won't be traded -- but that's a discussion for another day. For now, there's only one thing that matters: in what could have been his final start with the Rays, Shields threw an absolute masterpiece.

Nine full innings. 15 strikeouts. Two hits. No walks. Only one mistake pitch on the night, which was crushed by Chris Davis to straightaway center field. It was a spectacular game, but because of that one pitch, Shields took the loss in what Joe Maddon has termed "the crime of the year."

To help you gain some perspective on the game -- and Shields' season overall -- check out some of these tweets and facts:

[James Shields'] game score of 94 is the highest by a losing pitcher in a 9-inning game in the Live Ball Era. That distinction previously went to Ken Johnson, who lost 1-0 despite throwing a no-hitter back in 1964. (ESPN Stats & Info)

Game Score is a ranking system invented Bill James, which attempts to rate exactly how amazing and dominating a particular pitching performance was. The Rays have three starts this season that fall within the top 20 in the majors; James Shields has all three of those starts, with his performance last night ranking as the tenth best performance of the year by any pitcher. Shields is also the only pitcher to score higher than a 90 to take the loss during his start.

But enough about the results of the game. How exactly did Shields dominate the O's? If you look at his Brooks Baseball results from last night, you'll be misled into believing that Shields actually dominated the Orioles by throwing his four-seamer around 50% of the time -- considerably higher than his 18% season average -- and only throwing 11 changeups. In actuality, his game plan was no different than normal: attack hitters with his changeup and curve, and mix in his cutter and two-seamer more often.

Brooks appears to have mis-classified a large percentage of Shields' changeups last night as fastballs, as his velocity on everything last night was up. His fastballs were sitting in the 94-95 MPH range, and his changeups tended to be in the 86-88 MPH range. He was throwing gas, and he kept it up throughout the entire night and finished with a total of 23 whiffs (22% of his total).

If this actually was Shields' last start on the Rays, it was incredibly apt. He's been with the Rays for seven seasons, and he's now the Rays' franchise leader in wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, and WAR (pitching-wise, at least). It's only fitting that he throws the best single-game performance in franchise history as well...all while still getting the loss.

The offseason is looming, and who knows what the future will bring for the Rays or Shields. But for now, it's enough for me to have this final moment in 2012 to reflect on the sheer magnificence of James Shields.