‘Big Game’ performs up to hype despite loss
This was something completely different, in a good way. Between 2000-2012, the Kansas City Royals used nine different Opening Day starters. Six times, that aforementioned starter worked fewer than six innings before getting the heave-ho. Five times, that aforementioned starter surrendered four runs or more.
Between 2000-2012, the Royals’ Opening Day “aces” averaged just 5 2/3 innings per debut. Jeff Suppan begat Brian Anderson, who begat Jose Lima, who begat Scott Elarton, who begat Gil Meche.
Between 2000-12, the Royals’ Opening Day record was 4-9. More often than not, the season made it all of one afternoon before it felt as if it was already over and done with — a jazz funeral that started in April and ran all the way to the first Chiefs preseason game in August.
But not Monday.
Monday felt — well, somewhat hopeful. Oh, sure, it was a 1-0 defeat, and the Royals left a slew of men on base, and it was played in the kind of weather that was more suited for ice fishing.
But there was James Shields, unflappable. There was James Shields, mowing down White Sox hitters with a shrug and a smile. There was James Shields, wiggling out of a two-on, one-out jam in the bottom of the second with back-to-back strikeouts. There was James Shields, giving not even a smidge of quarter.
There was James Shields, the Royals’ new stopper, working quickly and efficiently, tossing no more than a handful of bad pitches, and offering up just one glaring mistake. Of course, Tyler Flowers hit that mistake into the left center-field bleachers, and that proved to be the difference in a 1-0 loss on Opening Day in Chicago.
“The difference in the game was one high changeup,” Kansas City manager Ned Yost told reporters after the game. “That was it.”
Amen, amen, amen.
In his Royals debut, “Big Game” James — the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade that shored up the Kansas City rotation but saw uber-prospect Wil Myers shipped to Tampa — lived up to every bit of his nickname. The tall right-hander worked six innings, fanned six and walked none. Shields threw 102 pitches in all, 67 for strikes.
“We get further into the year and he’d go back out (to finish the game),” Yost told the Associated Press. “That’s how good he was throwing the ball. Early, I limit them to 100 pitches. Guys like James and (Ervin) Santana and (Jeremy) Guthrie take your 100 pitches and go to work.”
There were eight hits on Shields’ ledger, but at least half of them of them were bleeders, dying quails that somehow found a hole just beyond the infield. Baserunners notwithstanding, Big Game James rarely lost his grip on the reins.
Anytime the White Sox mounted a threat — the bottom of the second, for example — it was snuffed out almost as quickly as it had started. Pale Hose hitters were 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position on an afternoon marked by sub-40-degree temperatures, cold winds, and long shadows.
“That’s exactly what I expect,” Yost told reporters.
It’s what Royals fans should expect, too.
And to think: As cool and controlled as Shields came off, imagine how this party would start to look with a little run support.
One man can only do so much. Over the previous two seasons, Detroit’s Justin Verlander, widely regarded as the best starter in the American League, has pitched in 14 games since April 2011 in which his offense has scored two runs or fewer behind him.
The Tigers are 1-13 in those contests. Over that same span, given the same conditions, Shields’ teams have a record of 6-14.
So Big Game James, to his chagrin, is used to trying to make more out of less. If you’re Yost, you just hope he doesn’t have to make a habit of it.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com