The Rays entered Thursday looking for a sweep of the Baltimore Orioles. James Shields entered Thursday looking to remain calm even as trade rumors swirled and at the very least give the Rays a second consecutive quality start. Neither got what they wanted by any measure as the Rays left Baltimore in a downswing on Thursday afternoon after a 6-2 loss to the Orioles.
The tone of the game was set in the first inning. Chris Tillman began the game by walking Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton. But Ben Zobrist grounded into a double play and Matt Joyce struck out as the Rays failed to score. Tillman and Shields combined to walk 6 batters in the first 2 innings, 3 from each, but both teams failed to score. Both pitchers then came on over the next 2 frames, allowing just a hit each. But after paralleling each other all afternoon, Tillman and Shields broke off onto divergent paths in the 5th inning as everything came apart for Shields and the Rays.
With 1 out in the 5th, Nick Markakis singled up the middle. Then Shields’ lack of any command of his pitches manifested itself again as he hit J.J. Hardy with an 0-1 pitch. Then he got ahead of Jim Thome 0-2 but could not put him away and wound up walking him, not throwing a single fastball the entire at-bat as he lost confidence. And then Shields got ahead of Adam Jones 0-2, but he left a cutter knee-high and Jones got enough of it to ground a single to left field to give the Orioles a 2-0 lead. Then Shields lost Matt Wieters despite getting ahead 0-2, once again not throwing a single fastball the entire at-bat. Then Shields hanged a curveball to Chris Davis, and Davis drilled a bases-clearing 3-run double to give the Orioles a 5-0 lead. Shields lasted 6 innings allowing 5 runs on 6 hits, striking out 10 but walking 5.
Shields is always a pitcher that has depended heavily on his command in order to succeed. He didn’t have it on Thursday. But here’s the problem: even if Shields’ fastball is not a plus pitch, his entire arsenal works off of it. Shields throws his changeup outside the strike zone very often. So how does he succeed? He succeeds because hitters are expecting fastball and and start their swing too early for swings and misses and weak contact. When he doesn’t throw his fastball, that doesn’t happen. Same story with his breaking ball- it’s no change of pace when there’s not a high-velocity pitch right before it. And his cutter? It doesn’t matter if he adds a little cutting action if there’s no fastball in the mind of the hitter to compare it against. Shields did not have his best stuff on Thursday, sure. But he has to find some way to battle through that and that starts with establishing his fastball and challenging hitters. If you get beat on your best pitch, fine, it happens. If you get beat throwing your secondary pitches, that’s inexcusable. It wasn’t just one or two batters, it was consistently throughout the 5th inning and throughout the game. This is getting ridiculous. James Shields could be on the verge of getting traded away just like another one of the best pitchers in Rays history, Scott Kazmir, was traded away in 2009. What’s the difference between Kazmir and Shields? From the start to the end, Kazmir was going to go after you and give you everything he had. James Shields has lost that. He has gotten tentative and this collapse, unlike Kazmir’s, is entirely his own fault.
The Rays finally got a couple of runs against Tillman in the 7th as Ryan Roberts walked, Carlos Pena doubled as Orioles left fielder Chris Davis misread the ball completely, and Sam Fuld came through with a 2-run double. Tillman went 6+ innings allowing 2 runs on 5 hits in 6 innings, striking out 6 while walking 5. He was by no means dominant, but he stayed composed and kept the Rays in check. Burke Badenhop allowed a homer to Davis in the bottom of the 7th to make it a 6-2 game. Darren O’Day and Pedro Strop tossed a perfect inning each for the Orioles before Jim Johnson walked around two 9th inning hits with a double play as the Orioles won 6-2. Tillman (3-1) got the win while Shields (8-7) took the loss. The Rays took 2 of 3 against the Orioles, but this game leaves them with a very bad taste in their mouths as they head off to Anaheim for a three-game set with the Angels. Alex Cobb matches up against Dan Haren for the opener on Friday night.
Overall on Thursday, the Rays were not that bad, being even with the Orioles for 8 or the game’s 9 innings. But James Shields let them down. Will this be Shields’ last start as a Tampa Bay Ray?