The elements aligned in a fashion that felt cliched enough to be fiction.
On Monday night, pitching in the ballpark he called his own for seven seasons, James Shields found himself and authored his best performance in two months. He did so at an opportune time, whipping his former Tampa Bay teammates in a 6-0 Royals victory.
In his return to Tropicana Field, Shields (9-4, 3.71 ERA) reminded why his current club mortgaged such vital assets for him in the first place. He operated with precise fastball command, which allowed his offspeed pitches to torment. He fooled with changeups 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.
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. He benefited from a pair of two-run rallies that afforded him a decent cushion.
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 on-field addition from the deal. In his first big-league season, Odorizzi has become a useful member of the Tampa Bay rotation.
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.
He entered the visitors' clubhouse at 3:50 p.m. on Monday, with a snapback 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.
Upon his return, 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 changeup, an 85-mph jitterbug that induced weak contact. His changeup usage has reduced this season, in part, Eiland believes, because Shields is tipping the pitch.
Eiland has harped on this issue for weeks with his highest-paid pitcher. 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 he threw his changeup, his arm dragged and he telegraphs the delivery to hitters.
"They've been spitting on a lot of them," Eiland said. "And they've been spitting on a lot of them because he's been coming of and showing early."
The changeup regained its deception on Monday. The pitch became a devastating weapon once more. He fanned Matt Joyce with one in the first innings, and struck out Logan Forsythe on a foul tip with another in the second.
Shields inherited a lead before taking the mound for the third. His teammates grazed Odorizzi for a pair of runs in the top of the inning. After singles by Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon roped a third into right field. An overzealous throw by rookie outfielder Kevin Kiermaier could not catch Perez at third. Omar Infante produced a second tally with a groundout.
Shields balanced on a tightrope for much of the third. A one-out double by 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.
Free from danger, Shields opened up his arsenal in the subsequent innings. He began to abuse his former teammates with his knuckle curveball. He picked up four more punchouts in the fourth and fifth.
The last of the bunch 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.
The seventh inning was his last. The frame began in foreboding fashion. Shields plunked Evan Longoria with a curveball. The tying run now stood at the plate. Three men represented that run. All three were set down with ease.
James Loney popped up to right. Another changeup missed the bat of Logan Forsythe. Shields avoided the barrel of Sean Rodriguez, and collected a groundout. It was clinical end to a triumphant homecoming.
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