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October 24, 2008

On the Beat

Big Game James and Coming Up Big

by John Perrotto

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ST. PETERSBURG-James Shields holds a distinction other than being the first pitcher in Rays' history to win a World Series game. The right-hander is also the first pitcher in baseball history with 32 career wins to have the nickname "Big Game"; that's what they call Shields in the clubhouse. It doesn't matter that he's been in the major leagues for all of three seasons and had never pitched in an actual big game for Tampa Bay until this year; he is still "Big Game James" to his teammates.

Shields smiles and sheepishly explains that the nickname has followed him from his days in the Rays' farm system. "A couple of players started calling me that, and it was kind of a joke at first," Shields said. "I ended up pitching a couple of good games in the minor leagues, and then the next thing you know the whole organization is calling me 'Big Game.' They don't call me by my first name anymore. When I got called up to the big leagues, the writers kind of got hold of that and started writing it. I don't think I have added pressure because of it, but I'm sure people that don't know the whole story wonder why people call me that."

Shields made the nickname seem believable on Thursday night as he bobbed and weaved through 5 2/3 treacherous but scoreless innings for the win, helping the Rays grind out a 4-2 victory over the Phillies in Game Two of the World Series at Tropicana Field. Now even at a game apiece, the series shifts to Philadelphia and Citizens Bank Park on Saturday night. Shields was far from overpowering as he allowed seven hits, walked two, and threw a wild pitch while striking out four. He failed to make it through the sixth inning for a second straight start after doing so in his final seven regular-season outings and his first two of the playoffs, but evened his post-season record at 2-2 after taking two losses in the American League Championship against the Red Sox.

"James lived up to his nickname, it just took him a few more pitches," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, after Sheets needed 104 pitches to get 17 outs. "I thought the Phillies did a great job. We found out those guys really work good at-bats. I didn't realize that was part of their equation. I hadn't seen them, but I know what I read, I know what I see. I was impressed. They made him work for his outs, and Shieldsy worked his butt off to get to that particular juncture of the game."

Shields did not necessarily agree with Maddon's decision to remove him with the Rays leading 4-0 with two outs and runners on the corners. Nevertheless, Dan Wheeler was brought in to face Pedro Feliz, and the move worked, as Feliz bounced into a force out to end the inning.

While Shields wanted to stay in the game, he also admitted that the Phillies had tired him out with their relentless approach at the plate. "It was a battle. It definitely wasn't as easy as that zero in the box score might make it look," Shields said. "I thought I pitched pretty well, I thought my stuff was good, and my changeup was exceptional. I felt the Phillies did a good job of battling, taking pitches, and being patient. That doesn't happen against me too often. I'm known as a strike thrower, and most of the teams don't really take too many pitches on me, but the Phillies did a great job and I had to battle through a lot of innings."

The Phillies' hitters, however, seem to be battling themselves as much as the opposing pitchers so far in this series. They managed just one hit in 17 at-bats with runners in scoring position in Game Two, and the single by Shane Victorino in the fourth inning failed to drive in a run. That failure in situational hitting came after the Phillies were hitless in 13 at-bats with runners in scoring position in Game One. The Phillies have left 11 runners on base in each game.

What bothered Phillies manager Charlie Manuel most was that three of Shields' four strikeouts came with a runner on third base and less than two outs in consecutive innings. Shields got Greg Dobbs with one out and runners on first and third in both the second and fourth, and Jayson Werth with one out and a runner on second in the third. The Phillies were retired in order just once, in the first inning. "We could not drive in runs," Manuel said. "If we would have executed, we would have scored three runs for sure. At the same time, we didn't play well. Actually, that might be one of our sloppiest games all year. I'm concerned about us hitting with guys on base, because it looks like at times we might be trying a little too hard, but we can fix that."

Don't expect Manuel to remedy the problem by shaking up his lineup for Game Three, a strategy he has not employed this season. "Basically, we have two lineups: one with Werth hitting second and Victorino hitting sixth, or the other where we move Victorino up to second and Werth down to sixth," Manuel said. "We've played that way all year and been successful. I can't see changing everything now."

Both teams will work out today at Citizens Bank Park, but Manuel knows that extra batting practice would be pointless 173 games into the season. Instead, he will wait for the law of averages to work in the Phillies' favor, and allow their batting average with runners in scoring position to undergo a market correction. "It has to work itself out," Manuel said. "We can talk about it. We can go out and take extra hitting. At the same time, it always just kind of works itself out. That's the way baseball is."

The Rays did not exactly smack losing pitcher Brett Myers around on their way to a 4-0 lead by the fourth inning. All of the Rays' runs came on outs, including two in the first inning when consecutive grounders by Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria produced runs. B.J. Upton hit an RBI single in the second, Dioner Navarro scoring in front of Rico Baldelli's being thrown out at the plate by right fielder Jayson Werth. Jason Bartlett's squeeze bunt in the fourth made it 4-0. That was quite a change for the Rays, as they have slugged their way through October with 23 home runs in 13 games. "We can play long ball, small ball, any kind of ball you want," Upton said. "It's the World Series. You just try to score runs any which way you can. Do whatever you have to do to win ballgames."

Maddon hopes that his young team learned an offensive lesson by manufacturing that many runs to post the first World Series victory in franchise history. "I turned to [bench coach] Davey Martinez and said, 'this is what we have to emphasize next year in spring training, scoring runs with outs,'" Maddon said. "I really want us to understand, and it's being validated when you're playing this time of year, how important it is to have that in your arsenal. You're not always going to hit home runs. When you're facing better pitching, when you get the opportunity to score a run, you better take advantage of it. If there are less than two outs, it doesn't have to be a hit."

Wheeler retired three of the four batters he faced after relieving Shields, and rookie left-hander David Price finished it by going 2 1/3 innings. Price allowed both Philly runs, one on a homer by utilityman Eric Bruntlett, who turned around a 96 mph fastball as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning, and another on an error by Longoria on Werth's grounder to third base with one out in the ninth that allowed Carlos Ruiz to score from second. Price again displayed the unflappable nature that belies the fact that the has pitched just 18 2/3 innings in the major leagues, as he struck out Chase Utley and then got Ryan Howard on a ground out to end the game.

At least on the surface, Price seemed as even-keeled as he did when he had pitched the final 1 1/3 innings for his first major league save in the Rays' 3-1 win over the Red Sox in the decisive Game Seven of the ALCS last Sunday, when he began by striking out J.D. Drew with the bases loaded to end the eighth inning. After last night's game though, the first overall pick in last year's first-year player draft from Vanderbilt admitted that he had had a harder time controlling his nerves in his World Series debut. "I usually don't even sweat out there, but my hat looks like I went swimming with it," Price said with a grin. "It's definitely different. That's what you hear, that World Series baseball is even different than the rest of playoff baseball, and I definitely have to agree with that."

While Price certainly has the talent and demeanor to start for the Rays in the future, he closed this one out for the current 'Big Game' James. "James pitched big games in past years, but it was when we were trying to keep the Red Sox or the Yankees out of the playoffs," Maddon said. "But he did pitch against those teams well in difficult moments, where they needed to win and we tried to prevent them from winning. I think the nickname primarily comes from his attitude and his demeanor on the mound, along with his consistency. You feel pretty comfortable when he goes out there under those circumstances. Yes, the name is sort of a misconception, but we're starting to play our first big games now, and he's pitching the same as when the big game was trying to prevent somebody else from getting to the playoffs."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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