James Shields pushed away his breakfast plate of toast and a halved avocado. He leaned back in his chair, swallowed a gulp of orange juice and waited for a dosage of Claritin to kick in. “I can’t even breathe right now,” he said a few hours before anchoring a 2-1 victory over the Yankees at Kauffman Stadium.
An onset of allergies affects Shields annually, and this summer’s version arrived last week, as he attempted to rebound from his rockiest stretch of this year. Shields spent his afternoon coughing and searching for respiratory relief; his opponents also placed pressure on him.
“Shields had to grind it out again, and navigate through some choppy waters,” manager Ned Yost said. “But he made huge pitches when he needed to.”
Shields struck out eight and limited the Yankees to one run across six innings. The outcome placed the Royals (31-32) within a game of a .500 record. They will chase that benchmark in Monday’s series finale against a creaky Yankees club that has showed its age this weekend. On Sunday they failed to punish a ragged starter and went one-for-17 with runners in scoring position.
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Shields scattered six hits as he combated his occasionally wayward command, his shallow lungs and his well-paid opponents. He benefited from the team’s acrobatic defense. The bullpen allowed the tying run to reach third base in the seventh and again in the ninth, but the relievers remained “clutch,” Yost said.
The offense benefited from a bunching of hits in the second. The Royals nabbed a pair of runs when a trio of two-out flares fell. Salvador Perez collected his team’s first hit by dunking a single to right. Lorenzo Cain lifted a sinker into the right-center gap for an RBI double. When Mike Moustakas looped a single to left, Shields had a two-run lead to preserve.
“Every time he pitches, he puts his heart out on the mound for us,” Moustakas said. “Holding that team to what he did today, it’s a phenomenal job by him.”
Shields stood on a mound manicured with a message. He inscribed the word “Zim,” a tribute to Don Zimmer, the beloved baseball lifer who died early this week. The pair grew close when Zimmer worked as an advisor in Tampa Bay, and his death on Wednesday stung Shields.
Later that night, Shields affixed a photograph of himself and Zimmer inside his locker. He wrote a message to Zimmer on his batting practice cap. Zimmer “was like a grandfather to me,” Shields said a day later, and he ached to attend the tribute ceremony on Saturday at Tropicana Park.
He shot a video for the presentation instead. He choked up as he spoke into the camera. “I really wanted to be there, really bad,” Shield said. “But in the back of my mind, I’m hearing Zim tell me that I’ve got to pitch on Sunday and beat up those Yankees.”
He also needed to dig himself out from a recent rut. In his previous four starts, Shields pitched to a 6.39 ERA. The Cardinals ripped him for seven runs on Tuesday. His cutter was useless, and his command was nonexistent.
In between starts, pitching coach Dave Eiland emphasized maintaining his balance. Eiland felt Shields “was really rushing through his delivery” against the Cardinals, which contributed to his downfall. Eiland expected Shields to correct himself for Sunday.
The Yankees insisted he exert himself. Shields threw 80 pitches in the first four innings. He stepped around a single and a walk in the first. A greater challenged awaited him in the second.
Shields created the jam himself. He yielded a pair of singles and a walk to load the bases. He extricated himself in a careful fashion, with an assist from his defenders. Shields fooled Kelly Johnson with a changeup for the first out. Eric Hosmer fielded a grounder from Brett Gardner and fired a strike to the plate for a forceout. For the final out, he struck out Derek Jeter with another changeup.
Shields wavered for a moment in the sixth. Yankees rookie Yangervis Solarte bounced a double past Hosmer. Facing Ichiro Suzuki, Shields fired a 2-0 fastball high over the zone. Perez missed the catch. Solarte took third on the passed ball. Yost elected to play his infield back, and Solarte scored on a grounder.
“It’s a grind every time you face them,” Shields said. “I’m not going to give in. I’m not going to just give them cookies.”
After 110 pitches, Shields departed. Two batters into the seventh, with Aaron Crow in the game, Yost ordered his infielders to creep forward. A one-out triple by Brett Gardner placed the tying run 90 feet away.
Crow steeled himself: He grounded out Jeter. Next he punched out Ellsbury with a four-seam fastball that tailed away and nicked the plate’s corner. “It felt good to put out the fire right there,” Crow said.
Greg Holland survived a similar jam in the ninth. Suzuki slapped a leadoff single and took second base on a wild pitch. He stood on third as Gardner started the game’s final at-bat. Eight pitches later, Gardner swung at a slider and only found air.
Holland recorded his 18th save of the season to protect Shields’ victory. The starter looked weary but relieved afterward. His eyes were red. His voice was hoarse. As a crowd of reporters walked away, he coughed into a towel. “I’m not feeling good,” he said, even if his pitching line on Sunday reflected otherwise.
“It’s satisfying,” he continued. “Unless I’m in the hospital, I’m one of those guys who’s going to go out there no matter what.”