By now, the nickname is part of the persona. But it started out with innocence. James Shields grew up in Southern California, a Lakers fan, and he’s old enough that as a kid he rooted for James Worthy. That’s Big Game James Worthy, you know, so baseball being baseball it didn’t take long before a teammate in the minor leagues started using the nickname on Shields.
So, no. As much as the truth has been left behind by sports mythology, the Big Game James thing didn’t start because of what Shields does in important moments. It started because of a different sport and a coincidence of names, but, you know, sports mythology can be fun sometimes, and the Royals’ first pennant race in a generation could use more fun and mythology. Besides, if the nickname started off as a bit of a tease ,it is now very real in the hearts and minds of Shields’ teammates.
And so it is that the Royals wrestled back sole possession of first place on the reliable right arm of the man they traded part of their future for. This is two starts in a row where the Big Game thing applies, two shutdown wins on the road — first in New York, and now in a first-place showdown against the Tigers that stands as the biggest game of this most important Royals season in two decades.
The Royals beat the Tigers 3-0 because Shields made the same two runs that have served as frustration in too many losses stand up in a crucial win. He did this by allowing no runs, two hits, one walk, and striking out eight over seven innings. He finished it in the most James Shields way possible — a strikeout on a changeup, a roar back to nobody in particular, and then a LET’S GO! toward catcher Sal Perez.
That clip will make the highlight package of this season, no matter how it ends.
“Every game’s big,” manager Ned Yost says, “but this was huge for us.”
The Tigers had not just won the first two games of this series. The Tigers did something closer to rubbing the Royals’ noses in it. First, the Royals bumbled their pitching and defense Monday. Then, they turned to mush with runners in scoring position and lost in the ninth after a can’t-do-it base-running mistake by Jarrod Dyson. As much as momentum is overstated in this sport, it was clear the Royals could use a boost.
Which has been Shields’ job going on two years now, whether in the clubhouse showing Danny Duffy how to use his emotions for good instead of bad or out in front of the crowd and the cameras shutting down one of baseball’s best offenses. There is a stubborn belief in the clubhouse that has been missing in previous years. Most of that is talent, and the fact that this is the best team they’ve had in years.
Some of it, too, is in the earned swagger — a very different and more legitimate thing than swag, by the way — of their ace. It’s hard to measure the value of an entire team just knowing their guy is going at least seven strong.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, maybe it’s just one of those rough stretches that every team hits a few times over 162 games, and maybe it’s the unforgiving light of a pennant race, but the last week or two included some rough signs. A team built on defense, for instance, had committed 15 errors in its previous 11 games.
Again, maybe this is all just happenstance. But the Royals were flawless defensively on Wednesday. Mike Moustakas, in particular, made one very good play and one spectacular play at third base — leaping toward the foul line to field a chopper, then throwing Torii Hunter out from the coach’s box. It’s as good a defensive play as you can expect to see on any night.
When it works like this, it’s just so simple, smooth, no bumps. The Royals would love to score more runs, of course, but there are a lot of teams that would love to prevent runs like the Royals. It doesn’t always have to be about scoring more runs than the other team. Sometimes, it can be about allowing fewer than the other team.
The Royals have now allowed two runs in their last five wins. That is an absurd fact, and the pitching and defense is why the team is in an offensive slump (14 runs in their last six games) but still able to open the last homestand of the season on Thursday in sole possession of first place.
The Royals are 16 games from the end of their most thrilling season in decades. That’s too many to responsibly call Wednesday a must-win, but there was a different energy about this one. They shut out the team that’s chasing them, and put their arms fully around first place again heading into seven straight home games against non-contenders before these same Tigers come to Kansas City in what should be a wild weekend series.
The Royals won a little more than a game on Wednesday, and they did it with their most accomplished player living up to the nickname he never asked for, and the hopes of a franchise that needs it to be true.