Frustratingly eliminated from playoff contention a night before, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher James Shields took the mound for the season's final time on Tuesday, October 2, at Tropicana Field. Though pressure no longer remained at maximum intensity for this match-up with the Baltimore Orioles, fans witnessed one of the finest career performances from the hurler known as "Big Game James."
During an efficient 105 pitch outing, Shields delivered his 3rd complete game of the season. Surrendering only 1 run on 2 hits, which included a mammoth home run by slugger Chris Davis, the right-handed pitcher did not issue a walk and struck out an incredible 15 batters. Without a scintilla of run support from his squad, even this brilliance proved insufficient, as the Rays fell by the score of 1-0.
Shields' 15 strikeouts fittingly set a franchise record for the most fanned batters in a single game. The 30 year-old recently joined David Price in becoming only the 7th pair of teammates in baseball history to post 200 strikeouts in consecutive seasons. Tuesday's effort also became the 5th instance in 2012 where Shields recorded at least 10 strikeouts.
His dominance over Baltimore may not have earned a victory, but the deficiency cannot be blamed on Shields. The loss was the 10th of the season where the Rays fell by the score of 1-0. Including 2 to the rival Orioles, half of those came during the past 2 months, when the team was otherwise attempting a playoff push.
Indeed, the entire Rays' staff has been hampered by frequent offensive slumber and each of the squad's 5 or 6 regular pitchers deserves a few more victories on the record. Underscoring the point, Shields became just the 2nd player since 1918 to be stuck with a loss when pitching 9 innings, posting at least 15 strikeouts, walking no batters, and issuing 2 or fewer hits.
The outing puts an exclamation point on a successful season that backed up the pitcher's 1st career All-Star selection in 2011. Many followers, including this writer, previously called for Shields to be used as trade bait to bolster the Tampa Bay's woeful lineup, since it was expected that his 2013 option might be financially challenging for the frugal team.
Perhaps the failure to execute a move can still be questioned, as the Rays came up short in the quest for the post-season. If an available hitter could have been acquired, his bat was missed in the dog days of summer, just as it was missed last night. Yet, there can equally be no doubting Shields' significance to the team's playoff flirtation over 160 games.
Still holding a $9 million option for next year, which would require a punitive $1.5 million buyout, the decision on the veteran pitcher has increasingly clarified. Finishing 2012 at 15-10, with an impressive 3.52 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 223 strikeouts, re-signing James Shields is now essential for the Rays. Though young pitchers like Chris Archer and Alex Cobb are deserving of a spot in next year's rotation, it should not be at the financial expense of Shields.
Nevertheless, the Rays previously discovered success in trading costly surplus pitching. GM Andrew Friedman dealt Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs in 2010 for 5 players who continue to carry potential for impact, including Archer, outfielder Sam Fuld, and prospect Hak-Ju Lee. Since the team is likely to lose hitters such as B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, and Jeff Keppinger to free agency, a similar trade must be considered if on the table.
Tied with Ben Zobrist and J.P. Howell as the longest-tenured Rays, James Shields has proven to be among the best pitchers in baseball. The robust track-record from 2012 demands the franchise accepts his $9 million option in 2013. He will likely be considered a bargain, anchoring the pitching staff alongside fellow record-setter, David Price.
Yet, teams like Tampa Bay that operate on tight budgets can rarely declare players off limits. If impressed by a trade proposal for Shields from a pitching-starved superpower, I expect the club will listen. While it would sting to lose a pitcher capable of 15 strikeout games, with anticipated holes at catcher, first base, and center-field, every avenue to improve a sub-par offense must be considered.
Yahoo! Sports, WashingtonPost.com, Baseball-Reference.com.
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