Vahe Gregorian

Big Game James comes up lame in his biggest start with the Royals

Royals starting pitcher James Shields got the hook in the fourth inning after giving up a hit that gave the Giants a 4-0 lead and put Shields in line to be the losing pitcher in game one of the World Series.
Royals starting pitcher James Shields got the hook in the fourth inning after giving up a hit that gave the Giants a 4-0 lead and put Shields in line to be the losing pitcher in game one of the World Series. The Kansas City Star

In one sense, it should be easy for Royals fans to console themselves and purge the buzz-killing, mojo-puncturing fiasco against San Francisco in game one of the World Series on Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium.

Serenity now: Vague as their resistance was in the 7-1 loss, the Royals actually really truly are in the World Series for the first time in 29 years. This still is a spectacular phenomenon, surely bordering on out-of-body for the long-suffering faithful.

But the flip side is that no one following modern professional sports knows the rarity and preciousness of this opportunity like a follower of the Royals, who had endured the longest postseason drought not merely in baseball but, for that matter, among NBA, NFL and NHL teams, too.

Now that it’s here, so what if the Royals are playing with so much house money that the chips are tumbling off the table? As promising as the future looks with a young nucleus, there’s no way to know when the Royals will pass this way again.

So every … single … night has to be about what gives the Royals their best chance to win, and they now no longer can avoid being embroiled in a dilemma with James Shields.

Much as Shields had hoped “amnesia” would be his friend Tuesday after a lackluster postseason, déjà vu ensued instead: Shields entered the game with a 5.63 ERA in three playoff starts, and it got worse after he allowed five runs on seven hits in three innings.

In between starts, Shields had passed a kidney stone.

But even thus liberated, he couldn’t pass muster Tuesday.

And his funk finally caught up with him and the Royals, who are in some jeopardy now after the sort of lopsided loss that can sway mind-sets in each dugout.

It won’t, though, sway the Royals’ minds about Shields’ place in the rotation, even if it now seems more rooted in hope than conviction.

“You have to know James Shields,” manager Ned Yost said. “You have to know that he’s a tremendous competitor. He has the ability to make adjustments.”

The ability, yes, but his reservoir may be another matter after pitching more innings than anyone in the big leagues this season.

Because Shields hasn’t been his customary self for most of the last two months now.

With the exception of three straight exceptional games from Aug. 30 through Sept. 10, in 10 of Shields’ last 13 starts he’s given up 66 hits and 35 runs in 66 1/3 innings.

That includes 28 hits and 15 runs in 19 postseason innings.

After this one, a seething Shields offered little illumination.

He rejected opportunities to deflect this to his nearly two-week layoff, that pesky kidney stone, his mechanics, how he feels physically and the matter of the strike zone.

“It was just one of those games,” he offered, flatly. Or “it just wasn’t my night.”

Trouble is, no night has really been his night lately.

Asked what the common denominators in his postseason struggles have been, he tersely said, “Next question.”

So after Shields’ latest postseason crumple, it might seem there is no predicament at all: No way Shields should start game five … if there is a game five.

But this is a knotty matter with no obvious solution, starting with the fact that without Shields the Royals wouldn’t be where they are.

You could say that about a lot of Royals, of course, a team that’s needed every single link in the chain for this magic to happen.

But you can’t say it any stronger about anyone than Shields, who stabilized a strong rotation by anchoring it and has been a transformative presence in the clubhouse. About anyone in there looks to him as some sort of guru.

This isn’t just a point of sentimentality.

Shelve, or even suppress, Shields now, and there’s going to be a disturbance in the force and potential fallout among the ranks.

More substantially, though, there is this: The Royals simply don’t have a better option.

At least not if you surmise that they aren’t just being whimsical about how they are using Danny Duffy this postseason.

Duffy, you’ll remember, was the Royals’ best starter much of the season before suffering an injury in New York and sputtering in his last start of the regular season.

When the Royals tabbed then-struggling Jason Vargas over him in the American League Division Series and then Jeremy Guthrie in the ALCS against Baltimore, they were saying that for one reason or another they weren’t able to commit their faith to him.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

But you can believe the Royals know more than we do about why … and that they want to win more than even the staunchest fans do.

This isn’t to say don’t doubt their decision-making.

They’re wrong if they’re not talking this through more right now.

Maybe Duffy’s performance in relief of Shields is part of that, but it also was a non-conclusive event with Duffy going three innings and walking three and surrendering two runs.

If the Royals can’t muster a win Wednesday in game two, it may be a moot point as the Series heads to San Francisco for the next three games.

But it will be Shields on the mound if it does come to that, as the Royals keep playing a hope and a hunch that ultimately is their best option.

“When his stuff is right,” Yost said, “he’s dominant.”

But when it’s not, it looks like it did Tuesday.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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