Struggling Shields confident heading to Game 2

Struggling Shields confident heading to Game 2

ST. PETERSBURG -- In the first couple of minutes of his news conference on Wednesday morning, Rays right-hander James Shields used the word "confident" three times. And perhaps that explains better than anything why, coming off the worst statistical season of his career, his manager still has enough confidence in him to give him the responsibility of starting Game 2 of this American League Division Series against the Rangers.

Joe Maddon will save 15-game winner Matt Garza for Game 3. Even Game 4 starter Wade Davis (12-10, 4.07 ERA) has more impressive numbers in the obvious categories than Shields, who went 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA.

Both this year and in his career, Shields has been a better pitcher under the roof of Tropicana Field than on the road. Maddon again hopes that the backdrop of catwalks and rattling cowbells will lead to a clutch performance from his righty.

"If James gets off well tomorrow, which I think he will, this guy is capable of pitching a really good ballgame and getting us into the latter part of our bullpen," said Maddon.

The decision to pitch Shields in Game 2 looked even bolder after the Rays suffered a 5-1 loss to the Rangers in Wednesday's Game 1. But Shields didn't appear to be feeling the pressure. Instead, he appeared to be welcoming the challenge.

"We have to win," said Shields. "We have to win one at home here. Tomorrow is a big start. I think if we get off to a good start early in the game, things will flow nicely."

Shields earned the trust of his manager during Tampa Bay's last postseason run in 2008, winning a start in the ALDS against the White Sox and spinning 5 2/3 shutout innings against the Phillies in Tampa Bay's only win of that World Series.

Though that was two years ago, Shields will think a lot more about that experience than the closing month of this regular season, when he went 0-3 with a 7.00 ERA in five starts.

Shields' struggles
Game 2 starter James Shields was hit hard in his last three starts for the Rays.
Date Opp. IP H ER Result
Oct. 1 at KC 5 12 6 L, 7-0
Sept. 26 SEA 6 8 5 L, 6-2
Sept. 21 at NYY 5.1 7 5 L, 8-3

"I think it's a big factor," Shields said. "I think the experience that I had in '08 went pretty well. You know, I think the experience factor, it's a whole different ballgame when you get out there. In 2008, I pitched the first game, and I didn't really realize how big the moment is, how big the stage is. I think this year having the experience of going through that in 2008 is definitely going to help me out and help my confidence out."

Of the subpar finish to '10, Shields is going with the half-full glass.

"I mean, I feel really good," Shields said. "Like I said, it's kind of weird. It's like my last three games, I got crushed by one hit, you know. It could have been a great outing each time. But no, I feel really good, though. It's been a long season, that's for sure. But there were a lot of ups and downs this year. I've dealt with it pretty good. But I've got a good mindset.

By the time Shields winds and makes his first pitch in Thursday's 2:30 p.m. ET Game 2, he might have no recollection of his last few starts.

"The best attribute for a baseball player is amnesia," Shields said. "I've told everyone this before, amnesia. But I feel really good right now. I feel confident in my stuff. I feel confident in what I'm doing out there. My bullpen sessions have been going great. I'm excited to get this thing going and getting the opportunity to pitch."

And if Shields did have any doubts in himself, they were likely put to rest when Maddon gave him the nod for Game 2.

"It definitely means a lot," Shields said. "These guys have a lot of faith in what I'm doing out there. You know, it definitely means a lot to the organization. Over the last four years, I've thrown 200 innings every single year. That's one of my main goals that I've been wanting to do every single year. To be able to throw 200 innings or more each year means I'm staying healthy and I'm here. To be able to have the confidence that Joe has the confidence in me to start this Game 2 is special."

Shields vs. Rangers
Rays right-hander James Shields had mixed results in two starts against the Rangers during the regular season.
Date Opp. IP H ER Result
June 5 at TEX 7 10 3 L, 6-1
Aug. 18 TEX 7 4 1 W, 8-6

With Shields pitching nearly 1,000 innings for Maddon over the last five years, the manager should know early in Game 2 which Shields he is going to get.

"The big thing with James to me is to stay in his delivery and make pitches with his fastball," Maddon said. "When Shieldsy is able to locate well with his fastball, everything else works off of that, and of course you can say that about almost any pitcher. But with him particularly, when he's really dotting down and away both to righties and lefties, fastball, and then he works a very, very good changeup off of it -- and I'll say it again, I love his curveball -- when he's got all those things going on, he's a pretty good pitcher."

Against the Rangers, Shields can't afford to suffer location lapses.

"You know, these guys will hit the homer, no problem," said Shields. "They definitely swing pretty hard. They've got a lot of righties in their lineup. My focus is to keep the fastball down in the zone, mix up my offspeed pitches a little bit. If I can throw my changeup and curveball for strikes, I think it'll be real big early in the count. But then again, I've just got to go out there and pitch my game and execute my pitches."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.