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10/01/08 6:00 PM ET

Shields not changing approach

Game 1 starter knows White Sox a threat, but remains relaxed

ST. PETERSBURG -- James Shields is trying to treat this as any other week. Doing otherwise could pile unwanted pressure on the Rays starter, who will face plenty as it is when he takes the mound on Thursday.

For the first playoff game in the history of Tampa Bay's franchise, Shields will throw the Rays' first pitch, as he did for on Opening Day in this Cinderella season of theirs. In Game 1 of the American League Division Series, Shields will face the White Sox, with a sellout, cowbell-ringing crowd behind him at Tropicana Field.

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Shields -- the oldest of Tampa Bay's starters at just 26 years old -- has been asked to be the first to take on a Chicago team that boasted baseball's most powerful lineup. If Shields experiences some pregame nerves, no one will blame him. That's one reason why Rays manager Joe Maddon has taken a business-as-usual approach this week.

"I don't believe in adding to the mental burden of what's going on already," Maddon said Wednesday. "I don't believe in adding to any of the other pressures, because everything around us, surrounding us, is going to create enough pressure. Why create more from within?"

Shields echoed that sentiment and appeared laid back during the Rays' workout on Wednesday, maintaining a smile and appeasing the wave of reporters that kept stopping to chat at his locker. This was a few hours before he shifted behind a microphone and was placed under a spotlight in an interview room to field more questions.

Maddon stressed that the preparation this week would be consistent with the regular season. Maybe the scouting reports would be a little more in depth, but there would be no more meetings than usual. Shields is taking a similar approach in an effort not to overwhelm himself with information.

"I'm going to do the same thing I've been doing all year," said Shields, who went 14-8 with a 3.56 ERA this season. "I'll just try to stay relaxed and go out there and pitch my game. If I try to overanalyze too many things, I think that's the wrong move."

There is one aspect of Thursday's matchup that Maddon said his pitchers do need to focus on, and that's Chicago's ability to clear the fence. The White Sox led the Major Leagues with 235 home runs this season -- six players launched at least 20 for Chicago -- and ranked second overall with a .448 slugging percentage.

One mistake, and the White Sox can make a pitcher pay dearly.

"You really have to be careful," Maddon said. "You have to have a really well laid out plan, pitching-wise. Of course, pitchers are going to make mistakes, but overall, you really want to try to understand the hitters, what their strengths are.

"They are dangerous with the home run."

That's one area Shields is focusing on in his preparation.

"They can change a game in one swing," Shields said. "I do have to think about that. I'm the type of pitcher that I'm a ground-ball pitcher, more or less, and I'm a strike thrower. So, I do have to keep an eye out on that."

"I'm going to do the same thing I've been doing all year. I'll just try to stay relaxed and go out there and pitch my game."
-- Rays Game 1 starter James Shields

Shields only faced the White Sox once this season, spinning six strong innings against them in St. Petersburg. Shields earned a no-decision in the effort, during which he struck out six and walked one. He did allow one run: a solo homer off the bat of Alexei Ramirez.

Shields is hoping Chicago's power doesn't play a role this time around.

"If I just concentrate on every pitch throughout the game," Shields said, "and be efficient with my pitches, just like I've been all season long, I don't think I'm going to have to worry about that too much."

Efficiency has indeed been a staple of Shields' game this season.

In his 33 starts, the right-hander averaged 14.6 pitches per inning, representing the fifth-lowest mark in the Majors. Inducing early contact helped Shields pile up a team-high 215 innings in the regular season -- the second successive season in which he logged that many. In the process, Shields became the first Rays pitcher to have a pair of 200-inning seasons on his resume.

Over the past two seasons, the only pitcher in baseball to log more innings than Shields' 430 is Toronto ace Roy Halladay (471 1/3). It's that kind of durability, which helps provide some rest for the Rays' bullpen, that convinced Maddon to name Shields the Game 1 starter.

It also doesn't hurt that Shields is 9-2 with a 2.59 ERA at the Trop this season.

Still, Shields believes that his manager could've easily given the Game 1 nod to any of Tampa Bay's starters.

"Anyone one of us five could be the No. 1 guy here," Shields said. "We've all done a great job. For them to choose me as the Opening Day guy and be the No. 1 starter in the playoffs, it's an amazing feeling for me. I've worked so hard to get to a point like this."

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