'Complete-Game James' is on a mission

'Complete-Game James' is on a mission

ST. PETERSBURG -- Finding something to do in Tampa Bay's bullpen becomes a problem every five days.

That's because it's James Shields turn to start and he likes to account for all 27 outs.

"The other day we tried to knock down some cups of water," reliever J.P. Howell said. "Do some abs maybe. There's nothing much for us to do. He kills our incentives, I'll tell you that. If you've got any [appearance] incentives [in your contract] he's taking them all from us. He's an incentives killer for the bullpen, but that's definitely a beautiful thing."

Feeling like a Maytag repairman, Howell has contemplated other options on "Complete-Game James" days.

"I thought about bringing my Game Boy out there, but that wouldn't fly with MLB, probably -- not a good idea," Howell said. "We relax pretty much. If he needs help with one inning, I'm sure we can cover it for him. But we know every time he pitches it's going to be a Shields marathon."

Shields will try to make it four consecutive complete games Wednesday afternoon when the Rays face the Reds at Tropicana Field. Friday night at Houston, the 29-year-old right-hander twirled his Major League-leading sixth complete game, a single-season club record.

"I never thought I'd be able to do something like that," Shields said. "It's been kind of surreal. At the end of [Friday night's] game I'm like, 'I can't believe I'm doing this again.' You know, but then again, I look back and I've put a lot of hard work into this season. So it's really satisfying to know that the hard work is paying off."

All of Shields' complete games have been wins, which gives him more complete-game victories than any American League team.

In addition to becoming the first in Rays history to have three straight complete games, he also became the first in the Major Leagues since Toronto's Pat Hentgen in 1997 to have six complete-game wins through his team's first 76 games. Shields' six complete games are twice the combined total of the Red Sox (one) and Yankees (two).

Overall, he is 8-4 with a 2.29 ERA in 16 starts.

Don Zimmer, a special advisor for the Rays serving in his 63rd season in professional baseball, called what Shields has been doing "rare" for the current era of baseball.

"It wouldn't be rare 35 years ago," Zimmer said. "But today, it's very, very rare."

Zimmer noted that Shields has been throwing all of his pitches for strikes and that those strikes have come wrapped as quality pitches.

"Right now he thinks he's King Kong because that's the way he's pitching and he should feel that way," Zimmer said.

Zimmer could not pinpoint at what juncture during his 63 years in baseball that the worm turned with starting pitchers. One thing is for certain, he noted: Few finish what they start these days and pitch counts usually dictate how long a pitcher remains in a game.

"When you've got a guy like Shields, you don't want him to throw over 105 pitches, but here he is going into the ninth inning with 105, you're going to let him finish the game," Zimmer said.

Zimmer likes the repertoire in Shields' toolbox, which includes a curve, fastball, cutter and a changeup the likes of which Zimmer has never seen.

"His changeup, you've never seen so many guys strike out on a changeup, but they do on his," Zimmer said. "He has got one of the greatest changeups that I've watched and I've seen some good ones.

"I've got to believe that sometimes some of the hitters know that it's coming and they still can't hit it. That's the kind of motion he has with it. And that's the way it is."

Zimmer harkened back to his days on the Brooklyn Dodgers, bringing up the names of Johnny Podres and Carl Erskine.

"They had the greatest changeups I ever watched," Zimmer said. "But nobody's got a better changeup than the one this guy's throwing right now.

"He's got one where the bottom just falls out of it. Most changeups come in like a fastball. And it looks like a fastball. It doesn't sink. But he's got a couple of different changeups. Right now he's on top of his game, there's no doubt about that. And he's fun to watch pitch."

But Shields is hardly a one-pitch wonder. Paul Konerko became a testament to that early in the season when Shields spun his first complete game of the season in a 2-1 win over the White Sox on April 19.

Konerko stepped to the plate with two outs in the ninth and the potential tying run standing on second base. The White Sox slugger battled until Shields unleashed a 93-mph fastball on his 105th pitch of the evening. Konerko swung and missed to end the game.

"With the pitches he had and where he was throwing them, he had about seven different options, because he was throwing two or three different kinds of pitches to two sides of the plate," Konerko said. "So, when you total that all up and have that many weapons and you are using all of them, it's a handful. There's nothing you can do."

Shields smiled when reminded of Konerko's remarks.

"If I work both sides of the plate with all of my pitches, it makes it almost like eight pitches," Shields said. "But I think it's more sequences, I think if you can mix up your sequences, mix up your looks, and try not to use the same pitch too many times to each hitter, it's hard to hit that way."

Kelly Shoppach has caught most of Shields' games this season. The Rays catcher said the game plan for any one game always has been flexibility.

"There's a good foundation for what he's trying to do going into each game," Shoppach said. "But hitters dictate what's going to happen. Sometimes his changeup might be his out pitch. Sometimes it might be his curveball. There have been times this year when his fastball has been his out pitch when it seemed like teams were sitting on his offspeed [pitches] when he got to two strikes. So it's constantly changing."

Shoppach believes the key to Shields' variety attack is his ability to throw all of his pitches for strikes.

"When you do that, you can be very creative, like dropping in a 2-0 curveball," Shoppach said. "That just doesn't happen a lot. A guy who can't command his offspeed stuff can't do that. The way he's been commanding all of his pitches, he can pretty much do whatever he wants any time he wants."

Shields is a walking baseball oddity. He leads the Major Leagues in fewest pitches per inning with 13.8, but he also ranked fifth in the Major Leagues in strikeouts with 117 as of Tuesday morning. Those two statistics rarely walk hand in hand.

"I think I've really been focusing on strike one," Shields explained. "Last game, I had 22 of 31 first-pitch strikes. And I had a lot of 0-2 counts as well. I'm putting guys away early in the count and throwing three or four pitches to each hitter, maximum. And when you do that, you're going to go deep in the game."

According to Shields, going deep into the game and giving the bullpen a much-needed rest is all part of his job.

"We pitch 34, 35 times a year," Shields said. "They might have 70-80 appearances, you know? Not to mention all the ups and downs they have in the game. They might warm up and not go in the game and the next day they're pitching. I mean it's just like they're basically pitching every single day."

Except on the days when "Complete-Game James" is pitching.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.