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Hart graduate James Shields has World Series experience under his belt

Posted: April 5, 2009 1:34 a.m.
Updated: April 5, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
Maybe you’ve wondered what it’s like. Growing up and playing baseball in the backyard, in the street or on a diamond.

James Shields says he’s no different.

He wondered what it would be like to be on the field for a World Series game, or better yet, win a World Series game.

Shields, a 2000 Hart High graduate, accomplished the feat.

His 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball in Game 2 of the 2008 World Series helped the Tampa Bay Rays earn their only victory of the Fall Classic.

It’s not lost upon Shields that he is the first and only pitcher in the franchise’s history to hold a series victory.

“I grew up in the organization,” Shields says. “I’ve been here almost nine years. I watched this organization go through 10 losing seasons. To get the first win was pretty exciting.”

It’s almost poetic justice that Shields holds what may be the biggest victory in franchise history.

He parallels the organization.

In six minor league seasons, he fought through injury and doubt.

Though he didn’t give up, there were definitely times of frustration.

“You can say one thing. I earned making it to the big leagues. I paid my dues,” the 27-year-old says. “I got shot down, sent down, on the brink of release — I persevered.”

If there was ever a team that had more doubt in the last 10 years and persevered through it, it was the Tampa Bay Rays.

In each of the franchise’s first 10 seasons, the Rays lost at least 91 games.

Like Shields, the Rays eventually blossomed, winning the American League East and league title last season before losing in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series.

Despite the loss, the experience was something Shields says he is building on.

But just what was that experience like?

“I wasn’t really nervous during the World Series as much as the first playoff (series against the Chicago White Sox),” Shields recalls. “They said it was the third-loudest crowd (in Tropicana Field history).”

An October story in USA Today reported that noise at Tropicana during the 2008 postseason got as loud as 130 decibels. A jet taking off is 120 decibels.

“It’s crazy to have 10,000 fans, and if they want to get loud it gets loud (quickly),” Shields continued. “When we get 44,000 fans, it gets really loud. I watched this city never come to games. Never wanted to go to games. The last half of the season, they started showing up.”

Going into Game 2 of the Fall Classic, Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey says there were inner discussions about how important it was for Shields to pick his team up after a Game 1 loss.

The comparisons were made to Andy Pettitte being the No. 2 starter for the New York Yankees of the late 1990s and how Pettitte’s efforts were a major factor in the team’s championships.

“He did exactly what we thought he would,” Hickey says of Shields.

In Game 2, Shields was paced to a 4-0 lead through four innings.

The Phillies made the Rays starter work for everything he got.

By the sixth inning, when he was lifted for a reliever, Shields had thrown 104 pitches.

“It was one of most exhausting games I ever pitched,” he says.

There was a major difference, he says, between this game and every other game he had pitched in his life.

“It’s just more intense knowing every single person that likes to watch baseball is watching that game,” he says. “To have the whole world watching you, you go out there beforehand and think about that stuff.”

The Rays won the game 4-2.

Obviously there is a void though.

The ultimate prize was not won.

Now, baseball experts are generally picking the Rays to finish third in their own division in 2009.

It doesn’t bother anyone on the Rays, Shields says.

“We have such a relaxed, laid-back team,” he says.

Personally, Shields says he hasn’t peaked either.

He went 14-8 with a 3.56 ERA last year.

In three seasons, he is 32-24 with a 3.96 ERA.

His numbers have improved each season.

“I feel I have a lot more work to do,” he says. “I want to be at least an 18-game winner this year.”

Hickey says the main thing Shields is concentrating on this year is working the corners of the plate with a two-seam fastball he developed last season.

As for the contributions the pitcher has made so far, Hickey keeps going back to one word in describing what Shields has been for the Rays — bedrock.

“He’s making that transformation into being the bedrock of the foundation,” Hickey says.

Shields says he was invited to play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, but politely declined.

His manager, Joe Maddon, will be the American League manager in this year’s All-Star Game in St. Louis.

It gives him a better chance of making the team, as he has been close to making the squad two seasons in a row.

For the second season in a row, he is the Rays’ Opening Day starter.

He’ll take the mound at Fenway Park as the Rays face the Boston Red Sox Monday on a quest to kill another wonder — what it’s like to win the World Series.

 “I think there’s a normal process players go through,” Hickey says. “‘I just want to make the Major Leagues.’ Then it’s, ‘I want to belong. I want to make my career.’ Then when you know you can pitch in the league, you want to be good personally. He’s done that. The next step is wanting the team to win. I really think now that’s where he’s at. It’s not about James Shields winning 20 games or being an all-star. It’s about winning and not getting to the World Series, but winning the World Series.”

That’s the next step.

cosborne@the-signal.com

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