He was brought to Kansas City for nights like this, for games in the wind and the rain in enemy territory, for moments when the Royals season appeared imperiled. On Wednesday, James Shields revived his club and returned it to sole possession of first place in the American League Central — and all it took was seven spotless innings in a 3-0 victory over the Tigers at Comerica Park.
“Today,” Shields said, “was a big game.”
Shields likes to say that September baseball may as well be playoff baseball. To lose is to shuttle your season one day closer to its end. The Royals acquired Shields so he could lead them into October. On Wednesday night, to bookend a 3-3 road trip, he demonstrated why this club requires his presence.
“When we need him most,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said, “he goes out and does what he did.”
Added first baseman Eric Hosmer: “We saw it on his face all day. He was locked in.”
Manager Ned Yost chimed in, “You don’t earn a nickname like Big Game James for nothing. And it showed exactly how he got his nickname tonight. Games don’t come much bigger than this.”
Five days after 81/3 scoreless innings against the Yankees, Shields (14-7, 3.13 ERA) muffled the Tigers. He withstood the elements. In the seventh inning, the only frame that gave him trouble, he overcame a muddled mound to navigate through the heart of Detroit’s order. He finished with eight strikeouts, fanning J.D. Martinez with his trademark changeup to end the seventh. Detroit could only manage two hits and a walk against him.
The offense delivered its typical safety net, a two-run rally in the fourth inning and a sacrifice fly in the ninth. The final two innings belonged to Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis. Greg Holland was unable to pitch for the sixth consecutive game because of tightness in his right triceps. It was up to Shields and the bullpen to maintain the lead and avoid a sweep.
“At this point in the season, you can’t get swept by anybody,” Hosmer said. “Let alone the Tigers.”
The Tigers tamed the Royals (80-65) on the first two nights here. They thumped Jeremy Guthrie on Monday and benefited from Jarrod Dyson’s base-running blunder on Tuesday. Kansas City saw its lead shrink from two games to none.
There was no way for Yost to spin that as a positive. But he simplified the situation. To illustrate the message, Yost told reporters a small parable. Two hikers are climbing a mountain when they come across a bear. One hiker bends to tie his shoes. The other looks perplexed.
“What are you doing?” the second hiker says. “You’re not going to outrun that bear.”
“I don’t have to outrun the bear,” the first hiker says. “I just have to outrun you.”
Inside his office, Yost laughed as he made his point.
“It’s a 19-game season,” he said. “We’re tied going into a 19-game season. We don’t have to beat them by five steps. We just have to beat them by one step.”
The first day of the truncated season almost never got started. A series of storms rocked the city Wednesday. The downpour soaked the diamond throughout the day. The clouds never parted, but the rain abated in the evening. The game was delayed only 42 minutes.
The matchup pitted Shields against Rick Porcello, a talented, enigmatic 25-year-old in the midst of his finest season since he debuted in 2009. He flooded the zone with strikes at the start, with 22 strikes in 27 pitches in the first two innings.
Kansas City broke through in the fourth. Josh Willingham sparked the rally with an 11-pitch at-bat. At last he rolled a single up the middle. Hosmer tapped a grounder toward third base and dove into first to beat the throw. Free-swinging as always, Salvador Perez smacked the first pitch of his at-bat into left field to score Willingham.
As Porcello stumbled, the skies reopened. The rain was pouring when Lorenzo Cain smacked an RBI single up the middle. Shields now possessed a two-run lead — larger than any advantage he had held Friday in the Bronx.
Shields had not started in exceptional fashion. The first batter he faced was Ian Kinsler, who punched a 2-2 cutter into right for a leadoff single. He would be the only Tiger to reach base in the first six innings.
And he wasn’t there for long. Shields threw to first to bring Kinsler back to the bag. Kinsler neglected to slide. Hosmer tapped him with a tag in the groin — to add injury to the insult. Yost succeeded on a challenge to overturn the initial safe call by first-base umpire John Tumpane. “I think that was, honestly, a crucial pickoff in the game,” Shields said.
The defenders behind him were also on alert. In the fourth inning, Torii Hunter hit a one-hopper that took a high bounce. Playing on the grass at third, Mike Moustakas lept and snagged the ball. As he tumbled out of play, he flung the ball across his body. Hosmer caught it a few feet away from first, darted to his right and slapped a tag on Hunter.
“That play’s sick when it’s not raining,” Hosmer said. “And it was raining out there. That was unbelievable.”
It was Hunter who vexed Shields in the seventh. He hit a single to give Detroit their first base runner since the inaugural inning. At this point, with Miguel Cabrera at the plate, Shields waged a battle with the mushy mud of the mound.
First he lost his balance on his back leg and flung a fastball well over Perez’s head. Hunter took second. Two pitches later, Shields slipped again. He stared at his landing spot and shook his head. “Wow,” he said.
Cabrera ended up walking. Shields altered his stance to lean his spikes against the rubber. That way, he wouldn’t slip for the final two batters of his night.
Victor Martinez flied out on the first pitch. With runners at the corners and two out, Shields squared off with J.D. Martinez, the Astros castoff who has tormented Kansas City all season. Shields declined to throw him a fastball. He floated curveballs and changeups until Martinez struck out.
When Martinez swung through the pitch, Shields erupted. He pumped his fist.
“Let’s go!” he shouted. “Let’s go!”
Asked about his outburst, a common occurrence for a volatile pitcher, Shields managed a smile. He channels rage on the mound. On Wednesday night, as the Royals reclaimed first place, his team required that quality.
“I think it was a big game,” Shields said. “It’s definitely a game that we needed, for sure. I think every game from here on out is pretty crucial.”