10/24/08 6:52 AM ET
In nick of time, Shields earns nickname
Long called 'Big Game,' pitcher delivers in his biggest game
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
The nickname is kind of a misnomer, though, for a 26-year-old Rays right-hander who's made 89 starts in his three-year career, four of them in this year's postseason."I think primarily it comes from his attitude and his demeanor on the mound, his consistency," Rays manager Joe Maddon said after Shields helped his club to a 4-2 victory, evening the best-of-seven series at a game apiece. "You feel pretty comfortable when he goes out there under those circumstances. "But you're right. It's kind of a misconception. We're starting to play our first big games now and he's pitching the same as he did when the big game was trying to prevent somebody else from getting to the playoffs." The Phillies had "Big Game" bending before he was lifted with two out in the sixth inning, but they couldn't break him -- or even score on him. Three times the Phils had a runner on third with one out and couldn't drive him in, designated hitter Greg Dobbs whiffing in the second and fourth before Shields recorded the final out of each inning. In the third, it was Jayson Werth who struck out before Chase Utley grounded out. "Bottom line is that our team gave us a 2-0 lead right from the get-go," Shields said, referring to the Rays' first-inning uprising. "They gave me enough confidence to get the job done and make my pitches. Maybe if it was a tied ballgame, it would have been a little bit different story. I might have put too much pressure on myself. But I made some key pitches in some key situations." Opportunities offered, chances missed. "He's good," said Phils center fielder Shane Victorino, who had two of his team's seven hits off Shields. "And when you have a good changeup, that complements a good fastball. Hey, he did his job. He pitched out of situations when we would have liked to have executed and scored runs, but he found a way to get it done."
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The Phillies did work the count on Shields and had him at 104 pitches when Maddon lifted Shields in the sixth with two out and runners on first and third. In that instance, it was Dan Wheeler who came on to get the last out.At that point, Maddon figured Shields was gassed. "I talked about them yesterday -- we found out these guys really work good at-bats," Maddon said. "I didn't realize that was part of equation for the Phillies. I don't see them. I know what I read. I know what I see. They really work tough at-bats. I'm impressed. They made him work for his outs. He'll probably tell you something different. I'm good with that. "But he worked his butt off to get to that particular juncture of the game. And that's exactly what we needed." Shields was picked by Tampa Bay in the 16th round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft and he languished in the Minor Leagues until 2006. He began to mature in his mid-20s as a control-style pitcher who's walked only 114 batters in 554 2/3 regular-season innings, including just 40 in 215 innings entering the playoffs this year. Over the last two seasons, he's 26-16, including 14-8 in 2008. "I've seen him before and it's always the same -- he's always around the plate," said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who was 0-for-3 against Shields on the night, continuing his postseason doldrums. "He uses his changeup very well." But as everyone is well aware, the Rays were the doormats of the American League East until this year, when they upended the Yankees and Red Sox en route to their first World Series appearance. As Maddon said, prior to this season, their big games were in September trying to prevent those two teams from making the playoffs. Shields is 2-2 in the postseason, his other win coming against the White Sox in the AL Division Series. The losses came against the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series when he didn't live up to his nickname. Asked if the moniker adds more pressure to an already-pressurized time of year, Shields could only laugh. "It was just a couple of players in the Minor Leagues and they just started calling me 'Big Game,'" he said. "It was kind of a joke at first. I ended up pitching a couple of good games in the Minors and my whole organization is calling me 'Big Game.' They don't call me by my first name anymore. When I got called up to the big leagues, the writers got a hold of it and they just started calling me that. "I don't think I have any added pressure as far as that goes." Well, it's not a joke anymore. And if the World Series extends as far as six games, "Big Game" will be out there again on the mound at The Trop, really pitching the biggest game of his career.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.