Sam Mellinger

James Shields taught the Royals to become winners, and now it's up to them

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher James Shields pitched the ball against the San Francisco Giants batters in the first inning in game five of the World Series on Sunday, October 26, 2014 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher James Shields pitched the ball against the San Francisco Giants batters in the first inning in game five of the World Series on Sunday, October 26, 2014 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif. The Kansas City Star

James Shields walked off the mound for what is likely the last time for the Royals this season or ever. He did it in silence. High-fived his friends and teammates as he walked into the dugout, but that was it. He was quiet. There would be no happy ending for him, at least not tonight.

The Royals traded part of their future to upgrade their present, and by now there is no question it was the right move at the right time. A franchise has changed its history, in large part because of the trade that brought him and cyborg reliever Wade Davis to Kansas City.

It’s just that in the movie version, this is where they would have cut to Shields screaming that scream of his, that loud, infectious, LET’S GO we’ve seen on mounds back home and around the American League for the last two years. In the real version, Shields was merely good while the other team’s pitcher was great, and what is almost certainly his last start after two transformative seasons for the Royals leaves the team he’s led with two (real) must-win games.

The Royals lost for the second night in a row, this time 5-0 to the Giants at AT&T Park on Sunday, and now trail the World Series three games to two.

For the second time in this series, the Royals’ imported ace was not as good as the Giants’ homegrown one, Madison Bumgarner. Now the Royals must win twice without Shields or watch what will always be remembered as a magical season fall short of the sport’s ultimate prize.

Shields has meant so much to the Royals over these last two seasons, both in performance and intangibles, which made the scene of his last start with them a bit awkward in that Bumgarner was so good that Shields’ performance didn’t really matter. The guy who has headlined this Royals resurgence was an extra in what turned out to be Bumgarner’s show.

“Tough matchup,” Shields says. “Bumgarner going nine shutout innings, you can’t really beat that.”

The front office brought him here to teach a talented but scuffling group of young players how to win, and now it’s up to that group to win without him.

Shields hasn’t been his best in this postseason. He started the night having given up 15 runs in 19 innings, a 7.11 ERA. Maybe that’s just a coincidental string of off nights, or maybe some of it is in the kidney stone he passed during the ALCS. Maybe it’s just the fatigue of a mercilessly long season in which he threw more pitches than anyone in baseball and 252 innings including the playoffs.

He worked with his pitching coach to lower his arm slot, and the results were good. His command was better in game five — he worked the lower part of the strike zone, and was let down by his defense in giving up eight hits and two runs across six innings — but the playoffs leave no margin for error. Good often isn’t enough, especially not with Bumgarner turning into Sandy Koufax in these playoffs.

That Shields made it through 18 outs and three trips through the Giants’ order is a credit to his own talents and drive and also one of those decisions a manager makes that can be reasonably second-guessed.

Bumgarner was predictably fabulous, right from the beginning, and the Royals had their best chance to score in the top of the fifth inning after Giants outfielder Travis Ishikawa played a ball hit by Omar Infante into a one-out double.

Jarrod Dyson followed, and there was a case to be made to pinch hit here. Bumgarner is especially tough on lefties, and Dyson didn’t have any good swings against him. Nori Aoki has an awful history against Bumgarner, but the Royals also had righties Billy Butler and Josh Willingham available to pinch hit.

“It was too early right there,” Royals manager Ned Yost says. “We were still looking to keep our defense in the game.”

So Yost stuck with Dyson, who struck out for the second time. That brought up Shields, a decent hitter for a pitcher, but obviously not who you’d want up with two outs and a runner in scoring position. He struck out.

After that, the Royals managed just one more base runner, on a single by Eric Hosmer. Infante’s double was the last time a runner reached second base. The Royals were down by two, against one of the game’s best pitchers, and two hitters who stood little chance took the at-bats.

The Royals are built on run prevention, and Shields did get two more scoreless innings after that. But they also must now sit with the knowledge that they did not maximize their best scoring opportunity when the game was still close.

Nothing in baseball is ever that simple, of course. There were other decisions up for debate, like every baseball game. And the reality is that like most of these situations, there was a reasonable defense for each — and on this night, nothing short of Bumgarner coming down with the flu was going to change the outcome.

The Royals’ deficit went from two runs to five with the previously untouchable Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis on the mound, so this is much more about one team’s players being better than the other team’s players on this night than any particular decision by the manager.

So much of this Royals season, especially the last month or so, has played out like a storybook. The Wild Card Game, the celebrations, the home runs by Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. That part of it, no matter what else happens, will live in the franchise’s history forever.

The Royals will fly a new flag on top of their Hall of Fame building in left field, and they will be fitted for shiny and gaudy rings sometime soon. A trip back home to Kansas City for a game Tuesday and a possible game seven on Wednesday will determine whether the new swag says “American League” or “World Series” champions.

Shields has been an evolutionary presence for the Royals, the unquestioned leader for a team that needed one. From Danny Duffy to Salvador Perez to Lorenzo Cain, the guys in that clubhouse give so much of the credit for the last two years of success to the performance and guidance of their best starting pitcher.

He hasn’t been great in the playoffs, but there is little doubt the Royals would not have made it this far without him. He’ll almost certainly make his next start in someone else’s uniform, but he will forever be entwined in the fabric of this organization’s rise from two decades of losing. He’ll come back to Kauffman Stadium, of course, first as a player and then maybe for a reunion of the franchise’s greatest team in 29 years.

He’s earned that. He’s done so much for the friends he’s made since joining the Royals.

Now, it is up to them whether he’ll come back as a World Series champion.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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