KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The moment Alex Gordon knew the Kansas City Royals were serious about winning can be traced to a cold December day when his wife heard they had traded for James Shields.
The franchise had long suffered through a forgettable cast of starting pitchers, from Jay Witasick to Darrell May to Runelvys Hernandez. Hot prospects flamed out. Free agents fizzled. And every year, the Royals languished near the AL Central cellar.
But things changed in December 2012. General manager Dayton Moore thought enough pieces had been assembled and all that was missing was the right starting pitcher — someone who could be the staff ace and change a clubhouse culture accustomed to losing.
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Moore called up the Rays and made the deal.
”That’s when I knew,” Gordon said, ”that we were going for it.”
Two years later, a trade that was panned by many has helped the Royals reach the World Series for the first time since 1985. Shields, who will start Game 1 at home Tuesday night against San Francisco (8 p.m. ET on FOX), has been everything Moore had hoped he would be.
”Those opportunities to acquire a top rotation starter and an impact pitcher like Wade Davis, they’re not presented year-in and year-out,” Moore said. ”We were fortunate the timing of it was such that it was staring us in the face and put us in a position to compete in 2014.”
It was a gamble. The Royals sent baseball’s top minor-league talent, Wil Myers, and a bevy of other promising prospects to the Rays.
Shields went 13-9 with a 3.15 ERA last year, helping the Royals to their best record in more than 20 years. And over the course of the season, Davis established himself as one of the most dominant late-inning relievers in the game.
This year, Shields finished the regular season 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA, helping the Royals return to the postseason for the first time since their only World Series title.
He started their Wild Card Game win over Oakland. He allowed two runs over six innings in earning the victory in a Division Series game against the Angels. And he was good enough to help the Royals beat Baltimore in the ALCS, running their postseason winning streak to 11 games.
”He’s earned the nickname ‘Big Game James’ for a reason,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
On a team with few veterans, Shields has proved invaluable in October. And when he takes the mound against the Giants, he’ll be drawing on the experience he gained in 2008, when he tossed 5 2/3 innings for the Rays against the Phillies in the only other World Series start of his nine-year big-league career.
”He’s been tremendous,” said Greg Holland, the Royals’ All-Star closer. ”He takes that starting five as kind of collectively, ‘Hey, we want to be the backbone of this team. We want to throw 200 innings apiece. We want to push each other, learn from each other.’
”I think he also leads by example, taking the ball every five days and giving his heart and soul,” Holland said. ”I think once you start rattling off good start after good start, it kind of builds on itself. You want to do just as good as the guy in front of you did.”
Shields also keeps the clubhouse jovial between games and ratchets up the intensity when it’s time to compete. Once he’s on the mound, he stalks around like a lion, often roaring as he heads back to the dugout after a big strikeout.
His teammates took notice, adopting many of his mannerisms.
”I just try to be myself and hopefully it’s contagious,” Shields said. ”That’s about it. I mean, I have fun with this game. I feel like I’m a grinder. I feel like I have a winning attitude, so hopefully it feeds off these guys, and we have fun with it. We’re all little kids at heart.”
Shields can become a free agent after the World Series, and few expect him to re-sign with the small-market Royals. Clubs with far bigger budgets figure to drive up the bidding to the point that Moore is forced to bow out of the negotiations.
All of that is for later, though. Shields is too busy with the present, trying to win a World Series ring, to worry about any of it.
”Obviously we understand the magnitude of what’s going on in Kansas City,” he said. ”We’re going to go out there and play our game and trust our ability to win ballgames.”