His walk lasted 33 steps, not nearly long enough to consider the 40 fourth-inning pitches that preceded it. James Shields removed himself from the diamond in expedient fashion and disappeared into tunnel leading into the visitors’ clubhouse at Target Field.
In a 10-2 loss to the Twins, Shields contributed his briefest appearance of the season, a five-inning mess. Minnesota tagged him for five runs. The defense behind him lacked its usual stoutness. Shields himself contributed an debilitating gaffe in that decisive fourth frame.
“I’m not doing my job right now,” Shields said. “I know that. So that’s frustrating.”
A five-run relief implosion by rookie Michael Mariot made the final line look that much worse. But the Royals found themselves dumped into a deficit once again by Shields, their ace. His degradation over the past two months has been both steady and alarming.
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Shields maintained a resolute face afterward. He insisted he felt healthy, and his bullpen sessions offered reasons for encouragement. He mentioned one pitch, a 93-mph fastball that caught too much plate and turned into a two-run double by Joe Mauer, which he regretted.
“I really didn’t make too many mistakes today,” Shields said. “They just hit the ball where they needed to hit it.”
It is an occurrence that’s become common. As the Royals vie for a playoff spot during the second half of the season, they find themselves puzzling over solutions for Shields’ woes. He has been prone to homers and hits of all stripes. His strikeouts have dipped. His fastball velocity remains steady, but his location continues to betray him.
“He’s just not sharp right now,” manager Ned Yost said. “He’s going through a streak, a pretty extended streak, four starts or so, where he hasn’t been exceptionally sharp.”
The evidence stretches back further than that. No longer can this be considered an interlude. In his last 12 starts, Shields has given up 8.3 hits per outing. He hasn’t collected an out in the eighth inning since April 17. He built his career upon efficiency; now the concept appears foreign.
So a new month began Tuesday, yet Shields still resembled the unsteady pitcher from May and June. He posted a 4.77 ERA those two months. Before the game, one invested observer bemoaned Shields’ over-exertion on the mound.
“He’s really trying to make his pitches better than they need to be,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “He’s really over-manipulating. When he does that, his head goes up, he pulls his front side off and his arm drags. And balls stay up out over the plate.”
This outcome transpired against the first Twins hitter. Shields left a 94-mph fastball over the plate for shortstop Eduard Nunez. A single landed in left field. Two batters later, Shields watched outfielder Chris Parmelee spoil a cutter and double into the left-center gap.
“That was a ball,” Shields said. “Below his knees and on the corner. Nothing you can really do about that.”
The Royals evened the score in the second thanks to an RBI single by Mike Moustakas. But he was soon involved in a defensive miscue that cost the club. With two outs and a runner on first in the third, Parmelee popped into shallow left field. Moustakas backpedaled into the path of Alex Gordon. The duo avoided a collision, but the ball bounced off the heel of Gordon’s glove. “That ball was hit in no-man’s land,” Yost said.
Granted an extra chance, Kendrys Morales cracked a hard grounder to the left side of the infield, and Alcides Escobar could not nab him with a jump throw. The Twins reclaimed the advantage.
That third inning was just a harbinger. The fourth contained the true calamity. It started innocently enough. Shields buried Kurt Suzuki and Eduardo Escobar in two-strike counts only to yield singles. After the second hit, new right fielder Raul Ibanez attempted an overzealous throw to third. Suzuki was safe, and Escobar advanced to second.
What followed was curious. Facing slap-hitting outfielder Sam Fuld, Shields missed low with a pair of changeups, dropped a curveball in the dirt and shot a fastball high. It was his first walk of the game, but at the very least, the free pass opened up a force out at the plate.
Shields had that run-saving option on his mind when Nunez dribbled a grounder to the right side of the infield. Eric Hosmer wheeled to throw home. Shields braked on his route to first base to watch. When Hosmer sensed no play was available and audibled to throw to first, the base was uncovered. It was the worst of both worlds: A run scored, and the Royals did not record an out.
The receipt for the mistake arrived immediately. Joe Mauer sliced a two-run double into left. Shields stemmed the bleeding, and avoided surrendering anymore. But the damage was done.
“It’s definitely frustrating that I’m not getting outs,” Shields said. “I’m letting my team down, and not getting my job done.”