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03/01/08 6:10 PM ET

First out is key to Shields' success

Righty retired first hitter in 74 percent of innings last season

ST. PETERSBURG -- Want a good stat that goes a long way toward quality performance? How about this one regarding James Shields: The Rays right-hander retired the first hitter in 74 percent of the innings he started, which was tops in the Major Leagues among ERA qualifiers, according to "The Bill James Gold Mine 2008."

News of his success caught Shields by surprise.

"That's the first out in the inning or the first out of the game?" Shields asked when told of the stat.

"First out of the inning," came the reply.

"No kidding," said Shields, obviously pleased with the number. "That's one of the most important parts of pitching. When you get the first out of the inning, that sets the tone. When a guy starts the inning with a walk or a base hit, there's a little more pressure to not let him score. A lot of things can happen. They can bunt him over into scoring position, then, just like that, a base hit scores a run.

"I've always gone hitter by hitter. I'm not thinking about the second hitter. I want to get the first hitter right away. That's very, very important."

The statistic should not be a surprise given Shields' strike-throwing ability.

"As far as my defense goes, throwing strikes, getting that first out right away, everybody knows the inning is going to get going really quick," Shields said. "You talk to infielders, once you get the first out, everything kind of flows right away."

Shields started the Rays' home opener Saturday at Progress Energy Park and quickly reminded the Blue Jays of what they'll be seeing again in 2008.

Strike one to the first batter, Reed Johnson, which led to a groundout. Strike one to the second batter, Shannon Stewart, which led to a broken-bat popout to first. Strike one to the third batter, Alex Rios, which led to a groundout to shortstop for the third out. Three batters, 11 pitches, three outs, thank you very much.

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Shields followed the first inning with an erratic second, during which he allowed one run on one hit, one walk and hit Aaron Hill with a changeup.

"First inning, I felt great," Shields said. "It's Spring Training, one of those things where you feel great one inning, next inning you might not feel very good. I thought it went pretty well the first inning. The second inning, I was a little tired. I was throwing some balls more with my body and I was kind of flying open in that second inning."

While the second inning went differently than the first, the third-year pitcher might have showed more of what he is about with the way he competed.

"I look around this room and there's all these young guys coming up," Shields said. "It's one of those things where once game time starts, it's game on. No matter if it's Spring Training, during the season or October, it's a game. Obviously, Spring Training is easier to work on things, not that big a deal. But to me, it is a big deal. The sooner I get it fixed here, the better off I'm going to be once the season starts."

Finding a way to compete is the essence of being a big league pitcher in Shields' eyes.

"You have your good stuff once a month," Shields said. "You can ask any starter about that. The rest of the time, you have to deal with it. It's just a learning process I've kind of learned the last couple of years. When you don't have your stuff, it's really tough to pitch out there. You have to find something deep down in."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.