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Shields ready for biggest game yet

Shields ready for biggest game yet

ST. PETERSBURG -- James Shields picked up the moniker "Big Game James" in the Tampa Bay farm system, long before the parent club could even dream of putting those kinds of contests on its to-do list.

His team down by one win after dropping a 3-2 decision to the Phillies in the World Series opener, Shields will get the ball for Game 2 on Thursday at Tropicana Field, about to have his opportunity to pitch on one of the franchise's most important evenings.

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"They've still got to beat us three more times to win this thing," Shields said. "I don't think there's any pressure. We're going to play the same way we did this whole postseason and go get one more."

In his eighth year as a member of the Rays' organization, Shields has seen a whole lot of losing take place under the catwalks in St. Petersburg. There was a lot of time spent looking up at rows and rows of empty blue seats, their accompanying tickets going unsold.

All of that has changed now, as there is a new hip place to be in town -- every seat has been purchased from Tropicana Field's box office, and suddenly a middle-aged person walking the streets with bright blue hair or a mohawk doesn't even merit a second glance. The Rays have arrived.

"I think we're starting to really change the attitude around here in this city," Shields said. "I think we're starting to change the atmosphere in this ballpark. People understand that when you pack the house here at The Trop, it gets really, really loud. And for visiting teams to come in here and hear that, I think it's distracting."

The 26-year-old Shields admits that he will feel a little anxiety before throwing the first pitch of the evening against the Phillies on Thursday, but that just goes with the neighborhood he hopes to move into. Shields spoke earlier this month about wanting to be "a postseason pitcher," saying that "I want to be the guy that's a [No.] 1-2 pitcher on the staff."

"I'm the type of pitcher that I want the ball, you know?" Shields said. "I thrive on that. I thrive on getting the ball."

He has the confidence of his teammates, for sure. Said Evan Longoria: "This is the guy who, as a team, we probably want on the hill right now. He's been pretty good. Him and [Matt] Garza back-to-back, we've got a good chance to win two games in a row."

TALE OF THE TAPE: Game 2
Phillies
Brett Myers
Rays
James Shields
2008 regular season
Overall30 GS, 10-13, 4.55, 65 BB, 163K33 GS, 14-8, 3.56, 40 BB, 160 K
Key stat29 HR allowed (sixth most in NL)1.67 BB/9 IP
(fourth best in AL)
Postseason
20082 GS, 2-0, 5.253 GS, 2-0, 3.72
Career4 G, 2 GS, 2-0, 4.723 GS, 2-0, 3.72
At Tropicana Field
2008No record16 GS, 8-2, 2.59
CareerNo record42 GS, 19-8, 3.25
Against this opponent
2008No recordNo record
CareerNo record1 GS, 1-0, 4.50
Loves to faceN/AMatt Stairs, 3-20
Hates to faceCliff Floyd, 12-33, 3 HR, 2 2BN/A
Why he'll winPHI 10-4 in his last 14 starts (incl. playoffs)Not allowed more than 3 ER since 8/26
Pitcher beware7.68 lifetime ERA in AL parks4.56 ERA last four home starts (incl. playoffs)
Bottom lineLimit the home run ballKeep throwing strikes

Shields is coming off an outing in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series when he was not quite able to live up to his label of "Big Game James," slapped on him by a Minor League teammate as a comparison to the clutch performances of former NBA star James Worthy.

With the Rays trying to rebound from a crushing Game 5 loss at Fenway Park and vault into the World Series, Shields couldn't lead them there, lacking fastball command and surrendering a sixth-inning home run to Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek that tipped the lead in Boston's favor.

Falling behind in the count early, Shields lasted 5 2/3 innings, marking his shortest start -- minus a one-inning tuneup on Sept. 28 -- since an Aug. 14 no-decision at Oakland. The loss marked just his fourth at home this season, a number he hopes to keep that way.

Some have wondered if a heavy workload has started to affect Shields in adverse ways, as he threw 215 innings in the regular season and 19 1/3 more so far in the playoffs, but Shields said that throwing exactly 215 innings for Tampa Bay in 2007 at least gave him a point of reference to work from.

"Right now, I feel really good," Shields said. "I think I approached 215 innings last year, and my body kind of had some wear and tear at the end of the year. I changed my offseason program a little bit to counteract this situation; I didn't think we were going to be in the World Series, but you never know."

Shields will be facing a Phillies club that he has seen just once -- in 2006, when Shields was making his fourth Major League start. Though the Phillies and Rays faced off in Spring Training due to the close proximity of their Clearwater and St. Petersburg campuses, Shields has been put through a crash course on the Philadelphia hitters and their tendencies.

Still, Shields knows the most important ingredient will be commanding his own pitches. If he can do that, the rest should fall into line.

"I'm the type of pitcher that doesn't like to change my approach," Shields said. "I like to make in-game adjustments. I know that [Phillies] squad is a pretty good hitting squad; they've been known to hit the long ball. But what I see is, not only do they hit the long ball, they can run the bases and play small ball, as well."

In other words, Shields sees the Phillies as almost an equal of the Rays -- but with one difference. Shields, as any starting pitcher must do, believes his club will come out on top. Big Game, indeed.

"This is an exciting time in our lives, and it's like a dream come true, so I'm definitely going to not feel the same as a normal regular-season game," Shields said. "But I'm going to be anxious and I'm going to be ready to go."

Bryan Hoch 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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