Shields continues to struggle with command

BY foxsports • July 15, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The hits just keep coming.

Unfortunately, Tampa Bay Rays starter James Shields is the one who continues to give them up – producing one big sour note Sunday afternoon.

Make that four straight games now that the struggling leader of the staff has yielded 10 hits or more, and this clunker couldn't have come at a worse time.

His latest off-balance start resulted in a 7-3 loss to Boston at the Trop, allowing the Red Sox to leave town taking two out of three. And it leaves the Rays standing on shaky ground for a four-game series that begins Monday night against the Cleveland Indians.

Presented with a 3-1 lead in the first inning, Shields squandered it by allowing 11 hits over five innings, including a home runs by Mike Aviles and Daniel Nava that allowed the Red Sox to tie the contest in the third and go ahead to stay in the fifth.

What a world of difference from the Shields of 2011 who led the majors with 11 complete games and re-asserted himself as the ace of the rotation with a 16-12 record and 2.82 ERA. The 30-year-old righty is now 8-6 with an ERA of 4.44, but those numbers hardly tell the whole tale.

Shields also leads the majors with 146 hits allowed. And his opponent batting average this season now stands at .290, compared to his .215 in 2011 with a seven hits-per-game average.

"It's just not working for him right now, where last year everything worked," said manager Joe Maddon. "He's working too hard early in the game and then he's expending all of his pitches. Again, when I evaluate it, when I watch, when I look at him, physically he appears to be fine. Physically the ball in the hand looks great. Delivery-wise not bad. It's just that he's unable to execute what he'd like to do. Maybe trying to do a little too much like everyone else is trying to do right now. I'm happy to feel or believe that he is well physically."

Shields was at a loss to pinpoint exactly what's going wrong.

"I need to a better job of making my pitches – not walking guys or putting guys into scoring position," he said. "I need to minimize my damage like that. The only two hits that I allowed with balls up (in the zone) were the home runs. Other than that, they found some holes today and there is not much I can do about it. I just need to make better pitches."

Shields made too many pitches, period, in the first inning – 29 in all – when the Red Sox took a 1-0 lead on two walks and an RBI single by Adrian Gonzalez. But for a change, the offensively challenged Rays came out swinging – and connecting.

Will Rhymes, batting leadoff for the first time in more than a month, opened the bottom of the first with a single to right off recently sputtering Boston starter Josh Beckett. Carlos Pena and Ben Zobrist promptly followed suit with singles of their own, tying the score 1-all.

After consecutive strikeouts by B.J. Upton and DH Hideki Matsui, Keppinger was hit by a pitch to load the bases. And Desmond Jennings came through with a line-drive single to center, scoring Pena and Zobrist to make it 3-1. For a team that arrived at the All-Star Break hitting .232 – a team held to four runs or less in 13 of their previous 16 games – this was no small accomplishment.

But Shields was unable to contain the Red Sox. After striking out catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia to start the second, he gave up a single to rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks and watched his first pitch to Aviles clear the centerfield wall to tie the score 3-3.

The Rays had a chance to re-take the lead in the bottom of the frame. They immediately put Beckett back on the ropes when Elliot Johnson led off with a single to right. But with one out, Johnson was thrown out trying to steal second. Pena drew a walk and moved to third on a bloop double by Zobrist. The threat, however, ended with Upton's fly out to right and Beckett only got stronger from there.

Shields, on the other hand, found himself in more jams. He dodged a bullet in the fourth after opening the inning by allowing a Middlebrooks double and an infield single by Aviles, making it first and third with none out. But he struck out hot-hitting newcomer Pedro Circiaco and Rhymes followed with a defensive gem, making a back-handed, diving stop on a hard grounder by Jacoby Ellsbury and glove-flipping the ball to Johnson from the dirt to initiate a double-play that kept the game tied.

It was downhill from there. Nava led off the fifth with a homer to make it 4-3. Shields gave up a Cody Ross single, walked Saltalamacchia and allowed a two-run base hit by Middlebrooks to make it 6-3, before striking out Avila to finally end the inning.

"I just need to keep grinding, man," he said. "… I'm going to stick with my routine; my body is feeling great, so I'm going to keep grinding it out. I'm sure it's going to get better."

It can't get much worse. Shields' four straight games allowing double-digit hits – 45 in his last 26.2 innings – is the longest streak by an AL pitcher since Oakland's Dan Heron did it in September 2007. But it's not the worst the Rays have seen. Tanyon Sturtze also went four straight games with 10 or more hits in 2002, and Albie Lopez set the franchise record with six in 2001.

What's puzzling is that Shields was 5-0 with a 3.05 ERA after his first six starts. But in his last 12, he's gone 3-6 with a 5.14 ERA. Perhaps part of the problem is the degree that Shields has not relied on his fastball. He's only thrown it 26.9-percent of the time, the lowest in the majors and the lowest in his career, well under his previous low of 36.4 percent.

Whatever the case, his latest stumble leaves the Rays in a precarious position three games into their 10-game home stand. By dropping two of three to Boston – with their 11th loss in the last 17 outings – they fell to 46-43 in the AL East. That leaves them 8.5 games behind the first-place Yankees (54-34) and a half-game behind the Orioles (46-42). But now they're also just a half-game ahead of the Red Sox and Blue Jays (each 45-44).

If there's good news, it's that the Rays are still very much alive in the Wild Card Race, a half-game behind Baltimore for the second spot and three behind the Angels for the first one. And the Indians comes to town on the heels of two straight losses to Toronto, dropping them to third  place in the AL Central at 45-43.

Alex Cobb (4-5, 4.89) will get the start Monday night at 7:10 against Zach McAllister (3-1, 3.40), with Matt Moore (5-6, 4.42) going against Josh Tomlin (5-5, 5.45) Tuesday night, Jeremy Hellickson (4-5-3.48) facing Justin Masterson (6-8, 4.14) Wednesday night and David Price (12-4, 2.80) pitching Thursday at 12:10 p.m. against Ubaldo Jimenez (8-8, 5.09).

The Rays will need to find a way to generate some more of their first-inning offense from Sunday. Even with that outburst, they're hitting .224 in their last 17 games dating back to June 25 – including .200 with runners in scoring position.

On Saturday night, the Rays squeezed out only five hits overall but still found a way to get the job done in a 5-3 victory. Their runs resulted from only 26 official at bats. That's something the Rays have only managed to do three times in club history. And here's the kicker: All have come this season.

To put that in perspective, the last major league team to do that three times in a season was Oakland – back in 1992.

In Saturday's seventh inning,  they actually pushed across the two deciding runs with only one official at bat.

Meanwhile, Price picked up right where he left off in the All-Star game, where he delivered a strong, scoreless inning in Kansas City Tuesday night, becoming the American League's first 12-game winner. And Fernando Rodney replicated his scoreless All-Star ninth inning by closing the door on the Red Sox for his 26th save in 27 attempts. Rodney lowered his already spectacular ERA to 0.91 – and just 0.39 at the Trop.

While the Rays struck out 10 batters (two by Rodney and eight by Price), their own hitters continued to struggle making contact – fanning 10 times themselves. It marked the fourth straight game they struck out 10 times or more, tying the club record established three previous times (2001, 2007 and 2011). And it was the 14th time in 27 previous games they've struck out 10 times – and 28th overall in 2012 (second in the AL only to Baltimore's 31).

The inauspicious streak ended Sunday when Tampa Bay batters struck out nine times. And the Rays actually made some noise late in the game. In the bottom of the seventh, Pena led off with his second hit, a single. And Zobrist followed with his third hit, a sharp line drive to right that moved Pena easily to third. But Zobrist took too wide a turn at first and was thrown out, taking the wind of a potential rally.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Rays loaded the bases on three walks off Alfedo Aceves. With two outs, Matsui stepped to the plate as the potential tying run. But the his towering shot – promising for an instant – fell well short of the wall and into Ross' glove for the final out.

In the end, they finished with a respectable 10 hits, their 20th game this season in double digits. But it was another type of double-digit day that did them in, leaving the Rays looking for some much needed momentum and Shields for answers.

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