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Shields named to start Opening Day

Shields named to start Opening Day

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ST. PETERSBURG -- James Shields will be the Rays' Opening Day starter.

With Scott Kazmir's left elbow strain taking more time to recover than initially expected, Shields, 26, will be the guy taking the ball when the Rays open the season against the Orioles at Camden Yards on March 31. Rays manager Joe Maddon made the announcement after Wednesday's 3-1 win over the Phillies at Progress Energy Park.

"It's one of the biggest honors a starter could ever have," Shields said. "I've worked hard to get here, so it's very gratifying.

"The unfortunate thing about it is you don't like to get it this way, without Kaz. But now that I am [the Opening Day starter], I'll be doing the best I can. And hopefully he'll be back real soon. Like I've said all along, he's our ace."

By getting the Opening Day nod, Shields joins the following list of pitchers to start Opening Day for the Rays: Wilson Alvarez, Steve Trachsel, Albie Lopez, Tanyon Sturtze, Joe Kennedy, Victor Zambrano, Dewon Brazelton and Kazmir.

Kazmir has been the Opening Day starter the past two seasons.

Shields, who signed a long-term deal in January that could last as long as seven years and, with incentives, could be worth as much as $44 million, went 12-8 with a 3.85 ERA in 2007. But that was only part of the story. Shields logged 215 innings and remained undefeated through his first 13 starts last season, posting a 6-0 record with a 3.05 ERA. He is 0-0 with a 3.41 ERA in four career starts at Camden Yards.

Maddon called Shields into his office at lunchtime to give him the news.

"He was very excited; this young man is quite a competitor," Maddon said. "He said, 'I'm ready, I'm ready to do this.' We said, 'We know you're ready to do this.' And I told him we have a lot of confidence in him in this situation, and he appreciated that.

"I think, speaking for the whole group, if Kaz can't do it, we have a pretty good alternative in Mr. Shields. He was just very excited about it, and he reacted the way I thought he would."

Maddon agreed that Shields has come a long way from when he joined the team at midseason in 2006.

"Retrospectively, one of the things that stands out with me [from Shields' first season], we were playing down in Miami, the Marlins, and he was having a hard time with the umpire that day, and I know we got on him pretty heavily about it afterwards," Maddon said. "From that moment on, this guy has made a lot of really good adjustments in regard to his demeanor, the way he pitches a game -- not overusing his changeup, pitching with his fastball first. He listens. He's listened very well."

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Shields has come a long way from 2006, and even further from 2002, when he missed the entire season recovering from surgery to his right shoulder, and experiencing problems associated with that surgery in subsequent seasons. Having that kind of history made Wednesday afternoon's news even more gratifying.

"Four years ago, I thought I was done," Shields said. "But I came back. I think a lot of that has to do with perseverance and hard work, like my offseason workouts. And now it's paid off. Yeah, this means a lot to me."

Maddon believes that March 31 will be a precursor for great things to come.

"He's one of the better competitors I've ever been around," Maddon said. "The sky's the limit for this fellow, too. We've just got to keep him healthy. And if we keep him healthy, he's going to be a very, very successful Major League pitcher for many years, because of his stuff and the way he is internally."

Shields first told his wife Ryane about the news, and admitted there might be a celebration Wednesday night.

"I might celebrate a little -- don't want to do too much," Shields said. "I've got to pitch on Friday."

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

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