He had twirled shutouts on this surface and spilled champagne on its fringes, but never before had James Shields stood atop the Tropicana Field mound wearing the road grays of the Royals.
At 7:14 p.m. on Monday, Shields scooped a baseball off the AstroTurf and paced a semi-circle. He toed the rubber with his size-12 1/2 cleats.
For the next two hours of a 6-0 victory, his greatest obstacle was not the Rays. It was not his own faulty mechanics these last two months. It was merely remembering after each of his seven scoreless innings to turn right, toward the visitors’ dugout, rather than into the dugout he had called home for seven seasons.
“Luckily,” Shields said, “we’ve got jerseys to help me with that.”
He required no further assistance. The stars aligned in a fashion that felt clichéd enough to be fiction. In his first start back at this ballpark, Shields, 9-4, appeared reborn, authored his best performance in two months and reminded everyone why his current club mortgaged such vital assets for him in the first place.
Shields operated with precise fastball command, which allowed his offspeed pitches to torment. He fooled with change-ups and flummoxed with curveballs. The result was 10 strikeouts, his most since April 22 in Cleveland, and three hits allowed, his fewest since April 27 in Baltimore.
“He was back to being James Shields,” manager Ned Yost said.
Added third baseman Mike Moustakas, “That’s the Shields that we’re used to seeing.”
For Shields, April was divine. The subsequent weeks have been torture. One night cannot erase two months of discontent, but Shields altered the conversation about his wayward performance via a seven-inning dissection.
The offense benefited from a trio of two-run rallies, three-hit nights from Alex Gordon and Omar Infante, and two-hit evenings from Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer.
The storylines overflowed on Monday. Shields dueled with Jake Odorizzi, a secondary piece in the trade that delivered Shields to Kansas City. With outfielder Wil Myers nursing a broken wrist, Odorizzi is Tampa Bay’s only current on-field addition from the deal. He struck out eight and took the loss.
When the day began, the Royals hoped Shields would bask in his homecoming. Tropicana Field is forgiving to pitchers. It is also the locale of his first baseball family.
“This is where he grew up,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said.
Shields entered the visitors’ clubhouse at 3:50 p.m. on Monday, with a snapback cap on his head and a pair of oversized headphones around his neck. An hour later he still wore his street clothes. His teammates emptied onto the diamond, leaving Shields alone in a foreign room in a familiar building.
“Walking by the home clubhouse is probably the weirdest thing,” Shields said later. “I’m so used to going into the home clubhouse here.”
During the last few weeks, Shields only partially resembled his former self, thanks to a 5.66 ERA in his last eight starts. At his peak, he dispatched opponents in expedient fashion. He could end at-bats with ease. A critical weapon in his arsenal was his change-up, an 85-mph jitterbug that induced weak contact.
Eiland has harped on this issue for weeks with Shields. When he watched Shields, Eiland saw a pitcher trying to manipulate his pitches too much and place too much movement on them. The result was a breakdown in mechanics.
When Shields threw his change-up, his arm dragged and he telegraphed the delivery to hitters.
The change-up regained its deception on Monday, and formed a devastating weapon once more. He fanned Matt Joyce with one in the first inning, and struck out Logan Forsythe on a foul tip with another in the second.
Shields balanced on a tightrope for much of the third inning. A one-out double by Kevin Kiermaier rattled his equilibrium. A two-out walk to Ben Zobrist placed runners at the corners. But Shields steadied himself and locked up Joyce with a 93-mph fastball at the knees for his third strikeout.
“When he’s on like that, that’s a tough at-bat,” Moustakas said. “Especially when he’s throwing all 12 of his pitches for strikes.”
Granted a two-run lead heading into the third inning, Shields opened up his arsenal. He began to abuse his former teammates with his knuckle curve. He picked up four more strikeouts in the fourth and fifth innings.
The last involved a pair of inside fastballs to push Kiermaier off the plate. Shields finished the at-bat with a backdoor cutter. Kiermaier only connected with the air. Shields maintained his stoicism as he stomped into the dugout.
“He pitched very aggressively away, in,” Yost said. “Good cutter. Good change-up. Ahead in the count. I just thought he pitched great.”
The seventh inning was Shields’ last, and it began in foreboding fashion. Shields plunked Evan Longoria with a curveball. The tying run stood at the plate. Three men represented that run. All three were set down with ease.
James Loney popped up to right. Another change-up missed the bat of Forsythe for another strikeout. Shields avoided the barrel of Sean Rodriguez, and collected a ground-out. It was clinical end to a triumphant homecoming.
The Royals pounded out four runs against Tampa Bay reliever Juan Carlos Ovideo and removed stress from the final two innings.
Shields last pitched here on Oct. 2, 2012. He struck out 15 Orioles in a complete game, but still dropped a 1-0 decision. He believes that game was the finest of his career.
The result Monday night was far more heartening.
“It’s a little sweeter,” he said. “It’s a little sweeter to come back here and get a win.”