Shields shows improvement in steady start

Shields shows improvement in steady start

BOSTON -- All eyes were on James Shields on Thursday afternoon at Fenway Park, wondering if the veteran right-hander could shake off his struggles in three starts since being acquired by the White Sox and give the team a chance to win.

While the White Sox lost, 8-7, in extra innings, squandering an opportunity to sweep the Red Sox in Boston for the first time since 1927, Shields was much improved, allowing five hits and three runs while whiffing five over five-plus innings. The most important, and encouraging, aspect of Shields' outing was his ability to get ahead in the count.

"He was just getting ahead," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "He was locating, and he just looked better as far as rhythm and all that. If he gets ahead, he's able to use his offspeed stuff, and for me, that was the big difference today."

Shields had struggled mightily in three starts since being acquired by the White Sox, entering Thursday with an 0-2 record and 21.81 ERA with Chicago. He'd given up a combined 24 hits in 8 2/3 innings against the Nationals, Tigers and Indians.

On top of all that, Shields doesn't usually pitch well at Fenway Park, where he was 2-9 with a 5.42 ERA at in 13 career starts entering Thursday's game. This time around, he felt comfortable on the hill.

"Obviously my last three outings -- my first three outings -- weren't very good," Shields said. "So it's definitely a positive. I've been around the game a while, I've got a lot more in the tank. Body feels great, so we'll move forward."

Catcher Alex Avila was equally encouraged by Shields' performance and his ability to make in-game adjustments.

"He was playing more in the strike zone early on in the at-bat than in previous starts," Avila said. "Throughout the innings that he pitched, there were times where he kind of got out of himself a little bit and rushed. But he was able to make the adjustment much quicker than he did in his previous outings."

The start against the Red Sox was a good sign for the veteran, but both he and his manager agree there is more work to be done. In particular, Ventura is looking for a longer outing from his starter to save a weary bullpen. The White Sox used six relievers in the series finale, four of whom allowed a combined five runs.

Shields, who walked four, has been working with White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper on his command and getting ahead in the count. Shields said the extra work with his coach paid off, but it came down to remaining relaxed rather than going the extra mile for his new team.

"The way the guys fought back, even though we lost this last game, we still fought back and we had a good chance to win this ballgame and get the sweep," Shields said. "But three out of four against Boston in Fenway is definitely is pretty good. It makes us feel good going home. We're going to build off it."

Deesha Thosar is a reporter for MLB.com based in Boston. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.