There was never much doubt, but it became official Friday morning when Royals manager Ned Yost confirmed that James Shields will start April 1 in the season opener against the White Sox in Chicago.
“Why Shields?” Yost parried. “Come on, dude. That doesn’t even deserve an answer. If someone can’t figure that one out…”
Shields, 31, was the key acquisition in the Royals’ offseason quest to rebuild their rotation. The club surrendered one of the game’s top prospects, outfielder Wil Myers, in a seven-player deal to acquire the veteran righty.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Shields said. “Obviously, Ned has a decision to make, and I’m very honored and grateful.”
Shields discussed that “honor” before he and the Royals headed to Tempe to play the Los Angeles Angels.
“I thought it probably wouldn’t be a good idea,” he joked, “if I did it later after giving up a nine-spot. I figured I’d do it (talk to reporters) before the game.”
Shields then yielded nine runs — that’s right, a nine-spot — and 11 hits over five innings in a 13-9 victory over the Angels.
“I won’t say that again,” he said. “I’ve got one more start before opening day, and I’ve got to hone it in.”
For all that, Shields got credit for the victory. The bullpen closed out the game with four scoreless innings, one apiece by Luke Hochevar, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland and Francisley Bueno.
“That’s right, baby,” Shields chirped. “I just held on long enough.”
Yost said right-hander Ervin Santana will follow Shields in the rotation with Jeremy Guthrie and Wade Davis in the third and fourth spots. The last opening remains a battle between Bruce Chen and Luis Mendoza.
The front four is no surprise.
The Royals opened their offseason by acquiring Santana, 30, from the Los Angeles Angels for minor-league lefty Brandon Sisk.
It was basically a salary dump by the Angels; the Royals are paying all but $1 million of Santana’s $13 million salary in his final year before free agency.
Next, the Royals retained Guthrie, 33, with a three-year deal for $25 million. He was 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 14 starts last season after arriving in a July trade from Colorado.
Davis, 27, came with Shields and utilityman Elliot Johnson from Tampa Bay in the Dec. 9 trade for Myers, pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery and third baseman Patrick Leonard.
“You know what?” Yost said. “You’re not going to do better any way you do it. Shields is our No. 1 starter. Any way you line those three guys up after him, you’re going to be in good shape. They’ve all got their different styles.”
The Royals open the season April 1 against the White Sox in Chicago. After an open date, the three-game series concludes April 3-4 before the Royals head to Philadelphia for a three-game weekend series.
The alignment positions Shields to pitch the final game of the trip, which means Santana is in line for the home opener on April 8 against Minnesota at Kauffman Stadium.
Shields started four openers for Tampa Bay — 2008-10 and 2012 — and, actually hasn’t done that well since beating now-teammate Guthrie in 2008 in Baltimore.
“The first time I pitched on opening day,” Shields admitted, “I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t know what to expect. You don’t know what time to be out there. They’ve got extra anthems.
“The next thing you know, you’re warming up and you have to wait 10 minutes, then warm up again.
“It helps out, definitely, that I’ve been there before. But it doesn’t matter if you do it once or four times, it’s still a pretty exciting day.”
Shields lost in 2009 at Boston and was losing in 2010 to the Orioles and last year to the Yankees before gaining no-decisions when the Rays pulled out walk-off victories.
In all, he is 1-1 with a 6.17 ERA (16 earned runs in 231/3 innings). He also allowed 32 hits and 11 walks while striking out 13.
“Hopefully, we can start a new trend here with the Royals,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of rough outings, but I’m really not too worried about it. I feel really good right now.”
Shields will be the 22nd different pitcher to draw the assignment in the Royals’ 45 seasons. Kevin Appier started a club-record seven openers, including six in a row from 1992-97.
Dennis Leonard ranks second with four opening day starts, while Paul Splittorff, Buddy Black, Bret Saberhagen, Jeff Suppan and Gil Meche each started three openers.
Chen pitched six shutout innings in last year’s opener against the Angels in Anaheim, Calif., before relievers Aaron Crow and Greg Holland surrendered five runs over the next two innings in a 5-0 loss.
Shields will be the Royals’ fifth different opening day starter over the last five years. Meche completed a three-year run in 2009 before Zack Greinke, Hochevar and Chen drew the duty.
“The nerves are going to be there,” Shields said. “That’s natural. I’ll be anxious more than anything.
“Obviously, this isn’t my first time around. But every time you go out there, you still feel like a little kid and starting to play baseball again.”