None bigger than Shields' next start
Rays confident heading into Game 6 vs. Sox behind their ace
ST. PETERSBURG -- There's a Chinese symbol tattooed on Rays pitcher James Shields' right ankle.
"It means 'unity,'" Shields said, standing in front of his locker Friday afternoon. "Pretty fitting, right?"
Particularly when you consider the source.
After allowing Boston to score eight unanswered runs in a disappointing 8-7 Game 5 loss in the American League Championship Series on Thursday night, there's no arm for the Rays to rally behind better than "Big Game James."
"He thrives on this type of moment, you know?" Rays right-hander and potential Game 7 starter Matt Garza said. "He's the guy -- that's why his nickname is 'Big Game.'"
And never has there been a larger game in Rays history than Saturday night's 8:07 p.m. ET Game 6. Tampa Bay holds a 3-2 series lead over Boston and is one win away from punching the franchise's first ticket to the World Series.
Shields will take the ball looking to silence any lingering doubts following the Game 5 loss, during which the Red Sox rallied back from a seven-run deficit.
"It maybe just left a bitter taste in some guys' mouths," center fielder B.J. Upton said. "[It] gives us a little more ammo for [Saturday]."
Shields will have plenty, as the right-hander gutted out 7 1/3 innings in Game 1 of the ALCS but took the loss despite allowing just two runs.
"James pitched great the first game [of the series], and I totally anticipate the same thing," Rays' reliever Dan Wheeler said. "He's the guy we want out there in this situation. I think they say, 'Momentum is [only as good as] the next game's starter,' and I like our momentum with James going out there."
TALE OF THE TAPE
|James Shields||Josh Beckett|
|2008 regular season|
|Overall||33 GS, 14-8, 3.56 ERA, 40 BB, 160 K||27 GS, 12-10, 4.03, 34 BB, 172 K|
|Key stat||4.00 SO/BB ratio (6 AL)||8.8 SO per 9 IP (2nd AL)|
|2008||2 GS, 1-1, 3.29||2 GS, 0-0, 11.57|
|Career||2 GS, 1-1, 3.29||11 GS, 6-2, 2.85|
|At Tropicana Field|
|2008||17 GS, 9-2, 2.59||3 GS, 0-1, 4.66|
|Career||43 GS, 20-8, 3.23||5 GS, 1-2, 3.90|
|Against this opponent (including ALCS)|
|2008 season||5 GS, 2-3, 4.98||6 GS, 2-1, 4.12|
|Career||9 GS, 2-5, 4.81||11 GS, 5-3, 4.06|
|Loves to face||Jacoby Ellsbury (1-for-16)||Carl Crawford (2-for-12)|
|Hates to face||Dustin Pedroia (6-for-13)||Evan Longoria (7-for-15)|
"He's been a pretty big go-to guy for us," Wheeler said. "And to have him going out there at home, here in front of our fans, is going to be pretty exciting to see."
Perhaps no one is more excited than Shields, who laughed off concerns about the Rays letting Thursday's tough loss linger.
"It is funny, because I'm from California and most Cali boys are laid back and just kind of go with the flow and move on," Shields said. "And I think that's kind of the approach our whole team has going."
Upton concurred that the Rays have a "pretty good feeling" heading into Saturday, particularly with Shields on the mound.
"We're going to come out ready and [Boston starter Josh] Beckett's going to come out, too," Upton said. "So it should be a pretty good matchup."
Facing a highly successful mound counterpart such as Beckett, who is 6-2 with a 2.89 ERA in his career during the postseason, Shields doesn't shy away with the pressure that comes with his "Big Game" label.
"I couldn't be a good ballplayer if I couldn't live up to things," Shields said. "I want to be the guy that's a postseason pitcher. I want to be a guy that's a [No.] 1, 2 pitcher on the staff. And that's who I am, I'm not going to change who I am."
Already well above his career high in innings pitched, Shields is coming off seven days' rest, a benefit Rays manager Joe Maddon believes carries more weight than the fiery Shields would admit.
"I think the velocity will be there, and he's going to be fine," Maddon said. "I like him actually with a day or possibly two extra days' rest right now. I know he might tell you otherwise, but I know he's going to be strong."
Far more than just a blue-collar pitcher, Shields has a premier changeup and a plus fastball and curve. He recently added a cutter to help throw inside to left-handed hitters. Shields' arsenal gives hitters a lot to think about, and he believes fastball command is vital to set up the rest of his pitches.
"My experience with him more recently is that even when he gets a couple extra days, it doesn't impact his command at all," Maddon said. "He's all about his command."
Shields vs. Sox in 2008
Shields' impeccable command makes him efficient: He usually lasts deep into games, saving the bullpen. Shields averaged 14.6 pitches per inning -- fifth fewest in the Majors -- and excluding one inning of tuneup duty on Sept. 28, he has gone nine straight starts lasting six innings or more.
"It's playoff time," Shields said. "No matter if it's four days' rest, three days' rest, seven days' rest or 12 days' rest, I'm ready to go whenever."
And he's confident he can continue to live up to the "Big Game" moniker he's had since the Minor Leagues.
"I'm ready to take the ball," Shields said. "I'm ready to go. This is who I want to be, and I'm ready to take that next step in my career."
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.