For three years, Scott Kazmir was the only shining light in a Devil Rays rotation of unremitting frustration. He was the first real ace the Rays have ever had, giving D-Rays fans confidence that their team could match up against anyone when he was on the mound. Then, beside him, appeared James Shields. While Kazmir was more flashy with his mid-90′s fastball and devastating slider, Shields came up with just a decent arsenal but gave the Rays the type of dependence Kazmir could never provide. Shields became a 200-inning pitcher year after year, and while he was the clear number two to Kazmir, he was able the better bet to get deeper into games and save the D-Rays’ decrepit bullpen from spoiling another game. Kazmir rose and fell, but Shields’ role stayed the same. David Price replaced Kazmir in the role of ace lefty and Shields remained that reliable number two starter. Then he had a tumble of his own–the 2010 season–but unlike Kazmir, he came back the next season and was better than ever. The dominance wasn’t there in his pure stuff, but between his outstanding changeup and the perfect mix of his fastball, cutter, and curveball, Shields became a frontline starter in his own right, albeit one of a different kind. Kazmir was the paradigm for the early years of Rays history, the transient potential that appeared in bursts but never lasted long enough to sustain any real success. Shields, meanwhile, was that seemingly unexciting pitcher who the Rays were able to turn into so much more, exemplifying the player evaluation mastery that made the Rays among the best teams in baseball even as their payroll remained at the bottom of the pack. Now, we get to see those two players and those two symbols square off as Scott Kazmir takes the mound for the Indians against James Shields and the Kansas City Royals.
Part of being a Rays is seeing your former heroes return to town in other uniforms. This though, is going beyond that. As the Indians take on the Royals, the Rays would like the Royals to win because it would help them in the Wild Card chase, but there isn’t the same type of rooting interest that there would be if Kazmir or Shields was facing the Rays. We can watch the game, not taking sides and simply seeing what happens as two former Rays greats hope to match each other inning for inning and lead their team to victory. Even as they remain a young team, the Rays’ history is being established. The murmurs of years past are spreading throughout baseball, triggering memories in the minds of Rays fans everywhere of different places and divergent times. Will it feel nostalgic, surreal, or simply wrong as we watch Scott Kazmir go against James Shields with the Rays there in spirit but certainly not in name? Only one way to find out: watch the game.