What was Joe Maddon thinking? It didn’t make any sense. James Shields was an awfully good pitcher for a few years, but he had completely come apart, managing just a 5.18 ERA on the season. He led the league in three categories: hits allowed, earned runs allowed, and home runs allowed. He couldn’t get anyone out. So what if he was the veteran of the staff? He didn’t deserve a playoff start and all he was going to do was hurt the team. The Rays were the team that never got sentimental, trading away Scott Kazmir the year before without beating an eye. They didn’t have the resources of the teams around them, so instead they squeezed out every resource they could get in order to keep winning, and their objectivity and willingness to do whatever it would take to improve their team with a major part of that. What happened? Why did they forget it for that one day? Shields was a disaster once again, allowing 4 runs in 4.1 innings, and the Rays lost the game 6-0. It may have very well cost the Rays the series- they went on to win the next two games- and you never know what could have happened from there. The haters were vindicated and the criticism became rampant. But Joe Maddon would never tell you that he made the wrong decision. It wasn’t just any pitcher he was sending to the mound.
Shields was a pitcher who had humble beginnings, being just a 16th round draft pick, and began to surprise only to undergo shoulder surgery. After surgery, his mid-90′s velocity left him, as did his feel for his breaking ball. But he kept fighting. He developed a changeup that quickly became unhittable. He improved his control to mitigate the effects of his lost velocity. He had no fear and he just went to the mound every fifth day and did everything he could to help the team win. He looked like any other pitcher when he got hit around in his rookie season in 2006, then joined Scott Kazmir as a beacon of hope the next season. He came up huge when the Rays needed him most in 2008 and followed it up with a solid 2009 season. And then it all came apart for him in 2010- but he continued to persevere. Despite all his struggles, he went over 200 innings. He refused to let his struggles get in the way of the person he was on and off the field and he knew deep down that whether he succeeded or not in that playoff start, his struggles were not going to define him. Shields failed in that start. But the next season, he was as good as any pitcher in baseball, and he followed it up with another big year to finish his Rays career in 2012.
Today, Shields surprised the Rays personnel packing up equipment to drive down to spring training, appearing to greet them and say his final goodbyes. It was vintage James Shields- from the stars he played alongside to the lowest rung on the latter, Shields treated everyone with respect because that was him, not just as a veteran leader, but simply as someone who had been through the ups and downs and understood the situations of around him. He gave the Rays the type of leader they never had before, a great player but not a natural, not a hotshot who had coasted straight to the major leagues, but one who had been through everything and overcome it all. That playoff start in 2010 was just another obstacle. That day, Shields could not do the job, but the next year, he didn’t just weave his way through it but accelerate by it and used the memories of just how bad he felt after every failure that season to drive him forward. The Rays can replace Shields’ spot in the rotation, they can even replace his production, but they can’t replace the mindset he instilled in every one of his teammates. All the Rays can do is continue to be inspired as they watch Shields move on to Kansas City and themselves move on to what will be a promising future, but not one without types of struggles that Shields taught them how to overcome.