James Shields looked great again on Saturday evening, as the Rays beat the Twins 4-1 thanks to a timely hit and some Minnesota errors. The beginning of the game did not feature much action, as Shields and Carl Pavano settled into a groove quickly. In the top of the second, Shields walked the hot-hitting Josh Willingham, who made it to third base on a groundout and passed ball by Jose Molina. Shields struck out Danny Valencia to end the inning and the scoring threat. After two long at bats that ended in strikeouts by Luke Scott and Matt Joyce, the recently returned B.J. Upton recorded his first hit of the season, a single up the middle. Molina was then hit by a pitch, but the Rays could not capitalize as Sean Rodriguez popped up to the second baseman.
Shields got out of a small jam in the 4th inning, as Joe Mauer singled, then stole second on a pitch that Willingham struck out looking at. Justin Morneau then sharply lined out to Upton in center, and Ryan Doumit grounded out to Rodriguez at short. The Rays had another chance to score in the bottom of the 4th. Longoria struck out swinging to start the inning. Next up was Luke Scott, who battled Pavano in a ten pitch at bat. Scott got around on the sixth sinker of the at bat and hit a double the opposite way to left. Matt Joyce then singled to right field, advancing Scott to third. Upton had a chance to get his first big hit of his young season, but grounded into a 5-4-3 double play to end the inning. This continued a noticeable trend for the Rays this season; prior to this game they were only batting .236 with runners in scoring position.
After a 1-2-3 top of the 5th inning, the Rays had more chances to score. Molina hit the first pitch thrown in the bottom of the inning for a double to left field. Joe Maddon must have felt that this game would be decided by only a few runs, so he had Sean Rodriguez lay down a sacrifice bunt to move Molina to third. With the slow-footed Molina on third, no one in the ball park must have seen a suicide squeeze coming. Desmond Jennings did not get a good bunt attempt down on the third pitch in the at bat and popped it up down the first base side as Molina chugged his way home. Joe Mauer showed off the athleticism that he is known for and made a diving catch and doubled off Molina at third with plenty of time to spare.
Shields then pitched himself into trouble in the top of the 6th inning. After two quick outs, Mauer singled, Willingham was hit by a pitch, and Morneau walked to load the bases. On a 2-2 count, Ryan Doumit hit a hard line drive in between short and third, but thanks to a patented Maddon shift, Longoria was able to snag the final out to end the danger. The bottom of the 6th inning was even more dramatic than the top. Ben Zobrist struck out to begin the inning. Pena and Longoria reached on a hit and a single, respectively. They tagged up on a deep fly out by Luke Scott. Matt Joyce was then intentionally walked to bring up B.J. Upton. With two strikes on him, Upton was not fooled by a changeup that he softly lined in front of Denard Span in center field. Span fired a rocket to third to try to nab Joyce, but the ball hit Joyce’s back and squirted into foul territory. Three runs scored on the single by Upton, and he found himself at 3rd base with two RBI.
By the 7th inning, Shields was reeling as he set down the Twins 1-2-3. The Rays got one more run in the bottom of the 7th thanks to an infield single by Jennings, an error by shortstop Jamey Carroll, a hit batsman in Pena, and an error by third baseman Valencia. Luke Scott ended the inning by grounding into a double play, thanks to a smooth glove flip by Alexi Casilla. Shields continued his masterful performance with another perfect inning in the 8th, his fourth 1-2-3 frame of the night. Like his last start, Shields tried to pitch a complete game and came out for the 9th, but also like his last start, he had to be relieved by Fernando Rodney. Rodney inherited a runner at first and third from Shields, but got help from a Desmond Jennings running catch in the corner in left; Willingham scored on the sacrifice. Rodney then struck out Valencia and Clete Thomas to end the game and earn his fifth save.
This marked the 3rd consecutive game that James Shields has pitched 8+ innings. He had control of all of his pitches, and worked quickly through the Twins lineup; three of his strikeouts were on sliders, and three were on changeups. He ended the night with seven strikeouts, two walks, five hits, and one earned run (which scored after he left the game). He effectively got out of jams, and continues to prove that last year’s stellar season was no fluke as his ERA now sits at 2.76. Tampa batters did get eight hits, including Upton’s go-ahead single in the 6th that ignited the 31,774 in attendance. However, they were fortunate that the Twins made three errors leading to two of their runs. The Rays were patient all night at the plate. They drew four walks, and averaged 4.41 pitches per plate appearance. Zobrist and Rodriguez were the only two Rays that did not get a hit, as both of them are struggling at the plate to start the season. B.J. Upton had a nice second game, as he had two hits, two RBI, and was on base three times. Tampa looks to win the rubber match tomorrow afternoon at 1:40 as Jeff Niemann takes on a struggling Francisco Liriano.