Devil Rays grooming new ace

By Tom Covill
PA Sportsticker Staff Writer

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have been in a near constant search for quality pitching throughout their 10-year existence. They may have found an ace in James Shields.

Shields is overshadowed even in small-market Tampa by All-Star lefthander Scott Kazmir, but is beginning to make a name for himself by holding in check some powerful American League lineups.

Through his start on Friday against the Chicago White Sox, Shields is leading the young Devil Rays with a 3-0 record and a 3.15 ERA.

While the 23-year-old Kazmir struggles with his command, Shields has taken over as the team’s most reliable starter. He leads the team in strikeouts with 64, and has issued just 16 walks in 74 1/3 innings so far in 2007.

“(Scott Kazmir) was the No. 1 pitcher going into the season and he’s still the No. 1 pitcher,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “Shields has pitched at a very high level to this point. I like the idea that Shields is turning into the pitcher that he is. Scott Kazmir made the All-Star team. It’s quite a 1-2.”

His recent success seemed like a long shot in 2002 when he was undergoing surgery to remove a benign cyst from his throwing arm due to a bone spurs.

“It grew over time and I had a little bump out of my arm,” Shields said. “It just so happened it was my right arm. After so many years of pitching, it caught up with me and I had to get it removed. Any time there’s surgery, it’s scary. You never know how you’re going to recover.

But The 25-year-old has been healthy since, and the Devil Rays are reaping the benefits. Shields won three of his first six starts this season, enduring no-decisions in each of his other seven starts, including the past four. He has allowed three earned runs or less in seven of 10 starts.

In perhaps his finest start of the year, Shields locked into a battle with Baltimore ace Erik Bedard at Camden yards on May 9. Both starters matched scoreless frames, with Shields allowing just three hits and one walk in nine innings, striking out four. Tampa Bay won in the 10 inning, leaving Shields with a no-decision.

The righthander credits much of his success to an improved offseason workout program he began in preparation for the 2005 season. Shields embarked on the strenuous 5 a.m. routine with his cousin - Philadelphia center fielder Aaron Rowand - and Toronto Blue Jays leadoff man Reed Johnson.

“Prior to that winter I hadn’t done much in the field of offseason workouts,” Shields said. “I just threw and ran some, but I never worked out, so my body continually broke down. Aaron is one of the hardest working guys in baseball. He knows what it’s like to be up in the majors. Sure it’s physical, but a lot of it is mental. Playing 162 games in 181 days is pretty grueling. What we did really helped me mature both physically and mentally.”

The work paid off as he rose through the minors and finally reached the big leagues in 2006. After toiling in the minors for most of six seasons, he battled to a 4-0 record through his first five starts, before the league began to figure him out.

“My first game was amazing,” Shields said. “To make my debut in Baltimore, the same place where Ripken broke the record. That ballpark is amazing. Just being out there in front of my family and the huge crowd was exciting.”

After struggling to a 2-8 mark with a 5.42 ERA over his final 16 starts of the 2006 campaign, Shields seems to have settled in quite nicely in 2007. While the win column isn’t exactly stocked, Shields has kept his team in each game while Tampa Bay’s young hitters grow into their roles.

To keep hitters at bay this season, Shields has been relying more on an improved curveball to keep hitters from sitting on his signature changeup.

“I needed to trust my curveball more,” Shields said. “Throwing my curve for strikes has been huge.”

Maddon appreciates the attitude his young righthander brings to the mound each start.

“I love the way he is,” Maddon said. “It’s almost like he has an everyday player’s mentality as a pitcher.”

Despite Shields’ success, the Devil Rays still rank last in the major leagues with a 5.42 team ERA. Aside from Shields and Kazmir, the rest of the staff owns a 6.35 ERA.

While the organization has been successful at developing quality hitters like B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford, and Delmon Young, Shields is the only homegrown pitcher to have much success at the major-league level (Kazmir was acquired in a trade with the New York Mets).

Second-year general manager Andrew Friedman and Maddon seem committed to changing that culture. Pitching prospects Andy Sonnanstine and Jeff Niemann are cutting their teeth at Class AAA Durham while Jacob McGee and Wade Davis are blowing away hitters in the low minors.

In just his second season, Shields will be counted on to stand up with Kazmir and anchor the staff while the young arms progress through the system.

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Updated Saturday, May 26, 2007