Second chances are the best type of chances. After your most ballyhooed team ever failed, Rays fan, you hitched your battered psyche to a former favorite in a town with a good story. He too failed. But not permanently. The Kansas City Royals are in the full-length playoffs.
Shields the Ray
In the larger sense, the James Shields story has always been about redemption. Promoted to the majors in 2006, rookie Shields managed to flash potential to savvy fans despite mediocre results. The following season, his potential was on display for all to see as he worked his pinpoint control to a 3.85 ERA despite pitching in front of a worst-ever defense on a last-place team. His emergence foreshadowed that of the 2008 Rays, and he was very much a part of that turnaround. As the Rays became legitimate, the nation began to recognize Shields.
Then came 2010. The Rays were good, and Shields was not. Sure his peripherals were comforting, but he gave up hits and home runs at a ridiculous rate. He was bad enough to ignite arguments all over Tampa Bay about whether or not to even include "Big Game James" on the postseason roster. He was included, and he gave up more home runs. He earned himself another nickname: Yields.
One year later, Shields silenced all the doubters. He made adjustments to his pitching, and he made adjustments to his luck. He posted a league-average HR/FB and an above average-BABIP, while continuing his excellent peripherals. The result was 250 superlative innings, national recognition of The Rays Way: You learn a changeup, and then you throw it to both righties and lefties, on both sides of the plate, and in any count. Every Rays pitcher since has been made, to some degree, in the image of James Shields.
That's why Shields still captures the imagination, heart, and loyalty of Tampa Bay like no other former player. Wherever he goes, he still represents The Rays Way, and it was easy for Rays fans to latch on to the Royals, and more specifically, the American League Wild Card game, started by Shields. The Royals, once a hapless franchise, now lead by our talisman, were the next best thing to watching the Rays in the playoffs.
On a rational level, we know that Shields is an ace. We know that Jake Odorizzi and Wil Myers are a testament to just how highly he's regarded in Major League Baseball. We know that The Rays Way works. But we can't quite shake our doubt. Watching James Shields fail still feels like you're watching the Rays fail.
Oddly though, when Shields was pulled in the sixth inning, the game did not end. Juego G's failure in 2014 is not final. The Rays Way may yet be redeemed.
If you were a left-handed hitter facing James Sheilds, what would you look for? I'd look for a fastball on my hands and a changeup down and away, at least for the first time through the lineup. Apparently, so would Brandon Moss. Decent pitch, but not decent enough. Two-run homer (Coco Crisp -- Shields's eternal enemy in the Rays creation myth -- singled on a high fastball to lead off the game).
The Royals struck back quickly, though, when Billy Butler slashed a line drive into left field, that very well might have gotten to the wall and scored two runs had Sam Fuld not been stationed in left tonight. Instead it drove in one run, and Butler strayed off first early for the third out of the inning.
In the third inning, Shields didn't respect Fuld's power, pounding him up and in. Fuld knew it was happening, pulled his hands in, flashed that quick bat of his, and blooped a single down the line. That'll show him. A single later, a line drive to first caught Fuld off the second base for a double play, so yeah, bad baserunning happens to good base runners, too.
In the bottom of the third inning, KC tied it on a Lorenzo Cain line drive double into left field, and then Eric Hosmer put the Royals ahead with a bloop into short left field.
Once more, in the top of the sixth, Shields continued to lack respect for Fuld's power, and continued to pound him up and in with that fastball. Shields shattered Fuld's bat, but once more, Fuld showed him -- with another bloop into short right field. If you're going to pitch Fuld that way (and you should), I wonder if a shift that would put two outfielders in right (one short, one medium) would be warranted. If I were a manager, I would try it, just to get on SportsCenter. That's one of many reasons I'm not a manager.
Anyway, Shields walked Josh Donaldson, and Ned Yost, in a fine display of proactive managing, went to Yordana Ventura -- newly sent to the bullpen for the playoffs -- to face the heart of the Oakland order. Shields is a workhorse, but it's a well-established fact that pitchers lose effectiveness when Ventura is good, but also only 23. Ventura might have the best stuff of any young pitcher in baseball, even if his command is not perfect. Ventura will be the staff ace one day, much like Shields is the staff ace now. Tonight, it was Ventura's turn to relieve Shields; to provide a fresh arm, and blast the veteran out of a jam.
Moss took two balls, and then walloped a 98 mph fastball over the heart of the plate to straight-away center. Ventura could not escape the inning, and was in turn lifted for regular reliever Kelvin Herrera with one out and a man on third. James Shields failed. The Rays Way Failed.
The game had an 80% chance of being over when Moss homered off Ventura. It was not.
That's a lot of game in there. But I keep a bottle of very fine bourbon exclusively for special occasions, and when Shields was pulled, I took to it. There's nothing I wrote about extra innings that's worth your time. If you want to know what happened, Josh Duggan at Royals Review, and Lev Facher at Athletics Nation have you covered.
This is the payoff.
It means that there will be another Big Game.
Some Other Notes:
- Shields started pumped. Throwing 95 mph in the first at bat. Also falling behind 3-1 before giving up a hit, so maybe pumped isn't good.
- Salvador Perez, with his giant swing, receives a giant demerit for poor situational hitting. Several studies have shown that hitters are able to affect their contact rate to match the situation. With a track star representing the tying run at third base in the eighth, Perez needed to make contact. He did not, even if he got bailed out in the ninth. Were I a pitcher, I would never throw him a fastball.
- Of course, Perez expunged his demerit quite well by winning the game in the twelfth with a single off Jason Hammel. And no, Hammel's pitch was not a fastball.
- I admire the Royals running while down multiple runs in the eighth inning. The Rays used to do that. It may not be smart, but it sets a tone, and at the very least, it wins you one fan. At the most, you run yourself back into the playoffs. The Royals ran themselves into a tie game. I drink to you, Ned Yost.
- The Royals stole seven bases, four of them in the eighth inning, to tie an MLB postseason record.
- Luke Gregerson has a villain's mustache. Why would you grow a villain's mustache?
- In case you were wondering, Wade Davis made an appearance, and shut down the Athletics, 1-2-3. Nice job, wolf man.
- Brandon Fineggan is KC's David Price. He was the Royals' 2014 draft pick out of TCU. He signed nine weeks ago. Now he's relieving in the playoffs, throwing gas, keeping his team in it. Nice.
- It was played enough during the game to make a man sick of it, but Casey at the Bat is one of my favorite poems. Makes me tear up every time I hear the Detroit commercial. Disappointment is beautiful.