When the Rays traded starting pitcher James Shields in December 2012, he was not just another pawn in a trade deal with the Kansas City Royals. The trade has been successful for the Rays thus far, considering rookie Wil Myers, the centerpiece of the trade, was pronounced the American League Rookie of the Year on Monday night. But, the Rays knew what they were giving up when trading Shields: a legacy, a fan favorite, and one of the most successful pitchers to ever take the mound for Tampa Bay.
Out of the many highlights of Shields’ career with the Rays was his spectacular 2011 season, when he pitched 11 complete games. But pitching complete games did not always come so easy to Shields. After Shields pitched his first complete game in his rookie season with the Devil Rays in 2006, he followed it up by going the distance again in 2007. Then in 2008, Shields tossed three complete games, and seemed to have made tossing all nine innings and permanent part of his repertoire. Instead, he failed to toss a complete game for all of 2009 and 2010, the two years that also happened to be the worst of his career after his rookie season. Especially after his 5.18 ERA in 2010, Shields was desperate to get back on track. 2011 saw him do exactly that, and it came along with more complete games than ever before.
Amid his dominant 2011 season, Shields tossed four shutouts, and in six different games, he managed to hold the opposing team to four hits or less while tossing the entire game for the Rays. Shields had already been Big Game James for years, but after his dazzling performances in 2011, he also received the nickname Complete Game James. He headed to the All-Star Game and became a top contender for the Cy Young Award, eventually finishing third. 2011 was the best season in Shields’ career to date, and the complete games especially made it stand out. In his final season with the Rays, 2012, Shields also tossed three complete games, 2-hitting the Texas Rangers on September 9th before ending his Rays career with a 15-strikeout complete game loss to the Baltimore Orioles.
A player like Shields seemed too hard to replace, and the Rays’ 2013 starting rotation knew they had big shoes to fill. David Price, universally acknowledged the Rays’ ace prior to the start of the 2013 season, understood this when he spoke with MLB.com’s Bill Chastain during spring training.
"“I want to go out there and be efficient and get deep into the ballgame,” Price said. “And that’s what I’ve tried to challenge the other [pitchers in the rotation about,] that [pitching five or six innings] is not good enough anymore. We want to get that seven-inning mark, that eight-inning mark.”"
What about that nine-inning mark?
The Rays finally answered the challenge during the month of July, when they went 21-5 to zoom from 5.5 games back in the AL East at the beginning of the month to leading it by July 26th. One major thing that helped them go on such a run was the starting rotation’s five complete games. Rookie Chris Archer got the ball rolling as he pitched his first career complete game against the Houston Astros on July 14, 5-hitting them and striking out 8 without walking a batter. Eight days later, Matt Moore pitched his first career complete game as well at Fenway Park on July 22, dominating the Red Sox in a 2-hit performance. David Price delivered a complete game two days later at Fenway just to add to the fun. Then Archer turned around and accomplished the feat again on July 27 against the Yankees, using another 2-hit shutout to edge IVan Nova in a 1-0 nail-biter.
Later in the month, the Rays were contemplating moving to a four-man rotation, which would result in leaving Roberto Hernandez out of the rotation. But Moore’s injury took him out of commission, giving Hernandez the ball. Hernandez responded by throwing one final complete game on July 30 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was an unlikely ending to a month of complete games, with even the struggling Hernandez getting into the act. Shields may have been gone, but the complete game mentality was as present as ever among the members of the Rays’ rotation.
While the Rays’ five complete games were among a long list of highlights from the Rays’ performances in July, Price certainly stayed true to his words from spring training as he had two other opportunities to pitch complete games. On July 29, Price was delivering a solid performance against the Yankees when a 40-minute rain delay during the eighth inning kept Price from another complete game. Although Price returned to the mound after the rain delay, Joe Maddon decided to pull the lefty after facing a single batter due to the length of time Price’s arm had rested during the delay. Price came even closer to reaching the feat when he pitched nine strong innings on August 3. However, the game went into the tenth inning, and Maddon sent Fernando Rodney into the game.
2013 was a rough season for Price, ironically, after winning the Cy Young Award in 2012. Expectations were set high for the southpaw coming into the start of the 2013 season, and a tricepts injury set him back from the start. However, during the month of July, fans saw the old Price they were used to, and he had plenty of highlights in store the rest of the season. Price’s finest outing was the complete game he pitched on September 31st, the AL Wild Card game against the Texas Rangers. With everything on the line, literally, Price delivered a slice of magic only a handful of pitchers could accomplish. It looked like Price was on his last legs after he allowed an RBI double to Alex Rios to pull the Rangers within 4-2 in the 6th inning. But Joe Maddon decided to leave his ace lefty in the game, and the results could not have been better as Price retired 12 of the final 13 batters he faced to finish off an improbable complete game that could not have been more timely. James Shields had to have been proud.
A win like that cemented Price’s legacy as one of the best pitchers the Rays have ever seen.The Rays may end up trading him this offseason, but no matter what happens, the Rays can’t appreciate any more how Price kept the tradition of Shields going for one more year. Price may be departing, but as we saw in that fateful July with not just Price but also three other pitchers going the distance, the Rays will find a way to keep it going. Shields and Price showed the Rays’ young arms the way. Now it is up to them to carry the baton.