Waiting on the ol’ reliable
He was walking almost a batter an inning and could barely keep his ERA under 7, but still was showing up for work, taking the ball when Mike Scioscia waved, and trying not to wince on the jog from the bullpen.
Over the previous five seasons, no Los Angeles Angel – not a pitcher or position player – had been more reliable than the willowy, Slinky-armed Shields, whom Scioscia could assign 70 appearances and a 2.80 ERA and move on to the next guy. Over the course of franchise history, only Troy Percival(notes) has pitched in more games than Shields.
But then Shields was suffering, worse than anyone knew, and all his efforts to think his way through hitters and then finish them the way he always did were lost the moment his left foot hit the mound, when the pain from his knee nearly took him apart.
It was on a Tuesday night, the Chicago White Sox in town, the seventh inning. The Angels were down so many pitchers they could not conceive of also losing the versatile Shields, who’d go long or short, lefties or righties, back-to-back nights or more, then pitch again. Except Shields came into the game that night thinking he couldn’t keep doing this, not to the club, not to himself.
“There’s no excuses,” Shields said, looking back. “I did not pitch well.”
And so with two out and nobody on base in a three-run deficit, he walked Alexei Ramirez(notes) on five pitches. Another walk, he thought. It was then he thought he would get through the inning and get off the knee, one way or the other, for two weeks or two months or nine or whatever. It was then he felt as if he could not go another step, not with the pain and the results and where it left the ballclub.
One more batter. He would get through Jermaine Dye(notes) and seek his own relief, no matter what. That’s when Dye hit a ground ball to the right side, to the left of his first baseman, Kendry Morales(notes). On the mound, Shields all but laughed out loud. Barely able – or willing – to fathom walking off the mound when the inning was through, he would have to cover first base at a full sprint.
“Just,” Shields said, smiling, “to make sure.”
It was the last pitch he threw in 2009, four months before the Angels played their way back, through all their injuries, into the playoffs. And about five months before they played to the brink of the World Series. Shields had surgery to repair the torn tendon and was done for the season, mercifully.
He followed along on television nightly as the Angels and Red Sox, then the Angels and Yankees tussled into the seventh and eighth innings. His innings. Those outs went to Jason Bulger(notes), who, at 30, spent a full season in the big leagues for the first time; Kevin Jepsen(notes), a rookie who appeared in 54 games, all but five of them after Shields could go no further; and the veteran Darren Oliver(notes).
While watching from a sofa in Illinois was a lesson in frustration, there could be no alternative.
“I’m so relieved what I had was over with,” he said.
Shields is not on a mound yet, but he will be soon. Then, in spite of roster and American League West turnover that threatens their run of three consecutive division titles (and five in six years), the Angels again will have more to rely on than most.
“Our bullpen changes with him,” said pitching coach Mike Butcher. “I think you’ll see the same stuff come out of his arm.”
That, in turn, changes a rotation that could be deeper than last year’s, but – without John Lackey(notes), and unless Jered Weaver(notes), Joe Saunders(notes) or Scott Kazmir(notes) make necessary improvements – will not be top-end authoritative. And while offseason additions Joel Pineiro(notes), Fernando Rodney(notes) and Hideki Matsui(notes) wouldn’t appear to offset the losses of Lackey, Oliver, Chone Figgins(notes) and Vladimir Guerrero(notes), a healthy (and presumably effective) Shields is a potential division-changer. He has been before.
In his walk year himself and hoping to be one of the ones who sticks around (a new contract, he admitted, is on “the back of my mind,”), Shields said he could be ready tomorrow if that’s when the season began.
The Angels will go with new guys and a new vibe. Lackey was the rare pitcher who could lead position players. Guerrero was a father figure to more than a few of the Latin players. Figgins made the offense go many a time.
Management made its decisions. And now, along with the changes, it can assume Shields and 70 games again, including all those big outs.
“I don’t know if the whole personality is changing,” Shields said. “Some personalities are changing. Every year, this organization brings in guys to replenish what we lost. It stinks having those guys go. But we trust the organization has done the right thing.”