All of the Opening Day starts have been special for Shields, but this year's might be even more meaningful for him, based on his journey back to the top spot of the team's rotation.
Shields last opened the season for the Rays in 2010, when he got a six-inning no-decision in a 4-3 win over the Orioles at Tropicana Field. That season ended on a low note for Shields, who went 0-3 with a 7.00 ERA in five September starts.
Meanwhile, David Price put forth a splendid 2010 campaign that earned him a second-place finish for the American League Cy Young Award. So, once the 2011 season rolled around, Shields' good friend Price had earned the Opening Day start for the 2011 season.
On the day Rays manager Joe Maddon announced that Price would be the 2011 Opening Day starter, both Price and Shields agreed that the competition between the two pitchers was not over -- and it wasn't.
Shields went back to the drawing board after the 2010 season to try and get reacquainted with pitching mechanics he felt like he could repeat on a consistent basis. He knew if he could pull it off, he would have a good chance of returning to his form from seasons past.
Shields' hard work paid off with a 16-12 season that saw him post a 2.82 ERA over a career-high 249 1/3 innings and an amazing 11 complete games, thereby earning him his fourth Opening Day start.
"Being the Opening Day starter means a lot," Shields said. "For me, I put in a lot of hard work in the offseason, and it's just a testament to how hard I worked last year to get to where I am this year. And that's pretty much all it is. Obviously, it's nice to become the Opening Day starter. Especially on a staff like ours, I mean, we have a pretty good staff. It's definitely gratifying."
Maddon did not lose any sleep making the change from Price to Shields.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
"We wanted to do that based on [Shields'] body of work from last year, just as the year before when David took that role," Maddon said.
Shields turned 30 in December, which is significant because the Rays have started a pitcher under the age of 30 for their last 764 games, a modern Major League record previously held by the 1913-17 Washington Senators. Hall of Famer Walter Johnson was on that team that established the record at 704 starts. Jae Seo made the last start by a Rays pitcher who was over 30, when he made a start on his 30th birthday on May 24, 2007, against the Mariners. Prior to that day, the Rays had not started a pitcher 30 or over since 32-year-old Mark Hendrickson on June 25, 2006, against the Braves.
"I think I'm going to put an end to the streak in the first game," Shields said. "So that's going to be real nice. But that's a pretty good streak. ... That's pretty special, man. It's nice to be among a group of guys like this."
Adding excitement to Opening Day for Shields and his Rays teammates will be the moment when they see a banner hoisted commemorating their Wild Card entrée into the 2011 postseason.
"Any time you make the playoffs and you're next year's Opening Day starter, it's a pretty good feeling just to know you were pretty successful the year before as a team," Shields said. "I think it's going to get us pumped up a little bit to raise the flags.
"Opening Day is definitely different, there's no doubt. You definitely have to calm yourself. I think after the first pitch I'll be fine, but up until then, I'll be a little amped up. Not necessarily nervous, but just excited to get out there."
Success during the 2011 season did not equate to offseason apathy for Shields. Instead, his successful season has served as a template for the coming year.
"Going into the offseason, I was feeling really good with my body," Shields said. "So I put in a lot of hard work in at the gym, did some extra stuff. Obviously, I did the same stuff I did the year before and added some extra stuff that's going to make me better this year. It's going to be interesting to see how it goes."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.