April 6, 2014

In battle of aces, Chris Sale and White Sox prevail over James Shields and Royals

White Sox ace Chris Sale bested Royals ace James Shields as Kansas City lost 5-1 Sunday afternoon in the finale of a three-game series at Kauffman Stadium. Sale blanked his hosts for eight innings, allowing only four hits. He suffocated the KC offense on a day when Shields was also outstanding.

The text message from James Shields blinked onto his phone one day in December 2012, and Mike Moustakas felt “ecstatic.” Inside his home in Laguna Beach, Calif., Moustakas was overjoyed to learn he would reunite with Shields, his former travel-league coach and the future workhorse of the Royals pitching staff.

“I was running around, jumping up and down in the house,” Moustakas said on Sunday morning, a few hours before Shields dueled with White Sox ace Chris Sale for seven innings in a 5-1 Royals loss.

The trade that brought James Shields to Kansas City, the most hotly debated swap of general manager Dayton Moore’s tenure, involved six players in all. The Royals (2-3) also gave up pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi, who is now in the Tampa Bay rotation. They received Wade Davis, who is now their set-up man. But the deal, distilled to its essence, involved swapping Shields for highly touted outfield prospect Wil Myers.

On Saturday night, Myers accepted his American League Rookie of the Year award in a ceremony at Tropicana Field. He returns to Kauffman Stadium on Monday evening for the second time as a Ray. He swatted 13 homers in 88 games last season. He posted an .831 on-base plus slugging percentage – a mark better than every Royals starter in 2013.

Thus Sunday afternoon, as Shields dominated and his teammates flailed in vain against Sale, the Royals absorbed a pair of reminders. They saw again what they acquired in Shields. And they understood once more the importance of the offensive force they lost in Myers.

Shields authored seven innings of one-run baseball. He operated with an arsenal that manager Ned Yost called “as good of stuff as I’ve seen James Shields have.” He struck out six and allowed only five hits – an outstanding effort trumped only by Sale’s eight scoreless innings.

“Any time he’s on his game, he’s pretty tough to beat,” Shields said. “I tried to go toe to toe with him.”

Close friends still refer to Shields as “Jamie.” Inside the clubhouse, the Royals call him “Juego,” short for “Juego Grande,” a Spanish variation on his more familiar nickname, “Big Game James.” The fifth game of a baseball season can hardly be construed as a critical contest – but Sunday’s matchup with Sale at least came close.

Shields breezed through the first six innings. He gave up a leadoff double to third baseman Conor Gillaspie in the fifth – and suppressed the White Sox’s threat in six pitches. He was less fortunate in the seventh.

Gillaspie struck again, this time with a one-out double. Shields attempted to buckle down. He retired the next batter, and, with two outs, secured a groundball from shortstop Alexi Ramirez. The defensive alignment called for Escobar to shade a few steps toward third base. The ball trickled up the middle, and Escobar could not make a play.

“If he hits it a foot to the left,” Shields said, “he makes that play all day.”

One run felt like more against Sale, who pacified the Royals with ease. After the third inning, he did not allow a runner past first base. He allowed four measly singles. Following a two-pronged bullpen meltdown by relievers Tim Collins and Francisley Bueno, the Royals finally scratched a ninth-inning run off White Sox reliever Matt Lindstrom.

Even last season, as the Royals surged to their best season since 1989, the offense lagged behind. Meanwhile, Myers flourished in the American League East. On Saturday morning, a reporter asked Dayton Moore if Myers’ success, and his potential for stardom, created a bittersweet feeling. Moore shook his head. “Not at all,” he said. “Not at all.”

Moore learned this profession as a scout and executive in Atlanta. In the winter of 2003, the Braves targeted St. Louis outfielder J.D. Drew. To acquire him, they built a package around three pitchers: Reliever Ray King, starter Jason Marquis and a right-handed prospect who never pitched above Class AA, Adam Wainwright.

“You draft and sign players with the vision they’re going to help your team win championships,” Moore said. “But the market that we’re in, and many markets in the game, you have to utilize your farm system to acquire talent.”

The Royals understood what they sacrificed when they traded for Shields. But they also know now what they received in return. Shields has lived up to its billing. It is his teammates who must displace what they lost in Myers.

“We got what we needed,” Moustakas said. “Obviously, Wil’s a great player, and he’s going to be a great player for a while. But we got an ace.”

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