ST. LOUIS — The baseball card says this is just one of those funks that Earth, Wind & Fire used to lay down, some wacky, bat-guano aberration, that Big Game James will find his way out of the jungle eventually and emerge, machete in hand.
Although, here’s the line for James Shields since May 19, and y’all might want to duck: three starts, 18 1/3 innings pitched, 26 hits, 17 runs (15 of them earned), six walks, 11 strikeouts and seven home runs allowed.
"The last couple of starts, I haven’t been on my game," the Kansas City Royals’ ace said after his teammates rallied for an 8-7 win to register a two-game sweep against the cross-state St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. "And the team picked me up, (so) that’s great to see."
Pros: The Ned Nine did their best impersonation of the ’77 South Side Hitmen, rocking the Redbirds for 13 hits, three doubles, a triple and a three-run bomb off the bat of Alex Gordon. And Shields was Shields, battling even while being simultaneously battered. Cons: 5 1/3 innings, nine hits, seven runs (five earned), four walks, one strikeout, two dingers, one grand slam.
"Shields had a night (Tuesday) where he was just fighting his command all night long," Royals manager Ned Yost said.
Well, that and gravity.
"His stuff was good; he just battled command, you know, he fought his command," the skipper continued. "But the competitor in him — he just kept competing."
Shields dropped a first-pitch strike on 18 of the 29 hitters he faced, and noted Tuesday night that there were only three offerings that he would’ve specifically liked to take back, and the three were ugly — a slider that Jhonny Peralta clubbed for a double to left in the fifth; an offering that Peter Bourjos took yard in the bottom of the sixth; and a changeup in the bottom of the second to Kolten Wong that the second baseman volleyed into his first career big-league home run, and boom, boom, boom, 4-zip, Cards.
"When the changeup is right, it really gets to the plate and the bottom falls out," Yost explained. "And that one changeup just stayed flat. But he stayed after it."
Which he did, well into the sixth. You can take the bite out of Shields’ stuff, but you can’t take the bulldog out of Shields.
The half-inning after giving up Wong’s grand slam, the big righty recorded the Royals’ first hit of the evening with a single in the top of the third. In the top of the fifth, Shields doubled hard to deep left-center off Jaime Garcia to plate the visitors’ second run, collecting his first big-league extra-base hit in the process.
It was one of those nights, kids. One of those crazy, crazy nights.
"I just got a pitch up there," said Shields, who was 2 for 2, raising his season average to .400 and his career mark to .222. "(On a) 2-2 count; I think I almost got hit by the pitch before that. I was just glad to put some good wood on it and get some runs, support the offense a little bit."
So the bat is coming around, which is nice. Shields’ rut on the mound, though, is teetering between the bizarre and the surreal, at present, given his otherwise strong resume. He’s never given up more than seven home runs in a single month over his career, so the notion of seven dingers in a fortnight defies logic as much as it does physics.
"I mean, I wouldn’t call it a slump," said Shields, still 6-3 overall and 19-12 in a season-and-change as a Royal. "I just call it bad outings.
"The one (start) in Anaheim, I gave up four runs — I don’t consider that a terrible outing, that’s a pretty damn-good hitting team. Then I faced Toronto (six earned runs allowed), which is one of the hottest-hitting teams in the big leagues, and St. Louis ain’t too much of a slouch themselves. I know that they’re struggling offensively right now (having taken a 19-inning scoreless streak into Tuesday), but I mean, they could do damage anytime; their offense is pretty good, one through nine. So, it is what it is, and we move on and keep grinding it out."
The verdict Tuesday was that the fastball was up, the changeup was flat and the slider was kind of all over the place. Which then begs the question: How do you fix it?
Slight tweak? Mechanical overhaul? Deepak Chopra?
"I think we can definitely work out of the bullpen (on the side)," Shields said. "I just got to get back to honing my delivery, fine-tuning my craft.
"As a pitcher, sometimes, you’re going to go through those stints. Hopefully, it’s not back-to-back like it has been. I don’t know. I’m pretty good at coming back and having some good outings after bad ones."
The last time Big Game was tagged for at least five earned runs in consecutive starts, you have to go all the way back to May 29 and June 5, 2012, in back-to-back losses to the White Sox and at the Yankees when he pitched for Tampa Bay. In Shields’ next start, on June 10 in Miami, he four-hit the Marlins over 6 1/3 innings, giving up just one run.
So precedent says that this, too, shall pass. You just wish it wasn’t like a kidney stone.