James Shields came into this season bearing the nickname Big Game James. As it draws to a close, Complete Game James might be more appropriate.
"I prefer James Shields, to be honest with you. It doesn't really matter to me, man," the Rays right-hander, who leads the Major Leagues with 11 complete games, said with a smile. "You can call me anything you like. I've been called a lot worse things than both of those."
His 11 complete games are nearly double the combined total of perennial workhorses Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. In his previous five seasons, Shields had just five complete games combined. The last pitcher with as many as 11 complete games in a year was Arizona's Randy Johnson, who had 12 in 1999.
Shields said he, David Price, Jeff Neimann, Jeremy Hellickson and Wade Davis, "pride ourselves as a starting staff to go deep. We want to lead the league in innings, want to do a bunch of things, and I think we've done a pretty good job this year."
The Rays have been chasing the Yankees and Red Sox in the American League East since May 24, after spending 15 days leading or tied for the division lead. Now, it's just the Red Sox they're pursuing -- with the Angels lurking as another challenger for the Wild Card.
"Every game is pretty big," Shields said. "I kind of feel that way every time I pitch. ... September baseball is what it's all about, the chase for October. That's what we live for as players."
The Rays' pitching into the late innings is manager Joe Maddon's doing. He is working with an almost completely rebuilt bullpen.
After last season, closer Rafael Soriano signed as a free agent with the Yankees, Joaquin Benoit signed with the Tigers, Dan Wheeler the Red Sox, Randy Choate the Marlins, Lance Cormier the Dodgers, Grant Balfour the A's and Chad Qualls the Padres.
In 2010, the Rays relievers had the Majors' fourth-best ERA at 3.33. This year, the number has jumped to 3.77 and ranks 20th.
This year, Shields, like Halladay in past years as well as this one, is something of an anomaly -- a throwback to an era in which double-digit complete games were routine. Thirty years ago, 11 pitchers did it, topped by Rick Langford's 18 complete games (he had 28 a year earlier).
"I think the game has evolved in a lot of ways that have made it better -- the bullpens, the age of specialization, the age of information," Maddon said. "It's much more reliant on information now than it ever had been.
"So, if you're going to have a bunch of specialists, but you don't want to get on board and go with it, you're going to be left behind."
As for going the distance so often, Shields said, "A lot of it has to do with Joe trusting me toward the end of the game. As consistent as I have been this year, he's allowed me to be able to do that."
Any other explanation?
"A little bit of success, a little bit of luck," Shields said. That's about it."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.