Rays give Shields Opening Day nod

Rays give Shields Opening Day nod

Ask James Shields which pitchers he looked up to as a kid and the answer might surprise you: Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax.

Seems a little odd given the fact Shields is 26 and both of the famed Dodgers pitchers were long retired by the time Shields was born. But the pair lived in the young Shields' mind thanks to his father, Jack.

"When [my father] talked about them, he said, 'You have to have a certain attitude on the mound like they did,'" Shields said. "My father never pitched in the big leagues, but he saw those guys on the mound a lot [while living in Southern California]."

Attitude is not a problem for Shields, who carries a heaping helping of no-nonsense every time he takes the mound. He is the Rays' blue-collar bulldog. Every time he starts a game he expects to finish it.

Shields is the Rays' Opening Day starter, meaning Rays fans can expect to see Shields stating his case to go nine on March 31 against the Orioles in Camden Yards. The right-hander has been a work in progress since joining the team at midseason of 2006.

"You know, it's just been getting experience for me," Shields said. "My first year, when I first got called up, I'm a completely different pitcher from then until now. Making adjustments in the big leagues is what it has been all about for me."

Shields' best pitch is his changeup, but he overused the pitch initially, which prompted hitters to wait for it. The results were predictable.

"I think you have to have three, four pitches to be successful in this league," Shields said. "These guys are hacking. You get guys who are sitting on one pitch all the time. And if they don't see that one pitch, they're taking all the way. They'll take three strikes right down the middle if they don't see that one pitch. So you have to have a bag full of tricks. It's definitely men and not boys here."

Shields' toolbox is now equipped with a fastball, curveball, cutter, and changeup.

"Last year was the first year I threw the cutter," Shields said. "I needed something to go into lefties. My four-seam kind of runs a little bit, so I had a problem with it when I was throwing inside to lefties, because I was coming back across the plate. So I needed something I could stick in there. I decided to throw the cutter and it's been a successful pitch ever since."

But on any given night, it's more than likely that one or all of his pitches will be off. That's when the real pitching begins.

"You have your good stuff once a month, six times a year," Shields said. "I've got 32, 33 starts. So you've got to be able to know what your strengths are that day. That's what's good about having four pitches. My curveball's not there, my cutter's not there, you've got to figure out what you have and use it that day."

But pitching on Opening Day and adhering to all the rules of pitching every fifth day is sometimes easier said than done.

"Opening Day it just seems like you've got your nerves going," said Scott Kazmir, who has been the Rays' Opening Day starter the past two seasons. "It's the beginning of the season. You've got that extra adrenalin going. It's different. It's definitely different."

Opening Day will be a new experience for Shields, but Rays manager Joe Maddon believes Opening Day will be a precursor for great things to come for this work in progress.

"He's one of the better competitors I've ever been around," Maddon said. "The sky's the limit for this fellow, too."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.