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New Royal Shields lives for big games

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, at 4:54 p.m.

In the Santa Clarita Valley, a sprawling swath of Southern California suburbia, they still talk about the best high school baseball game they ever saw. It happened nearly 13 years ago, but Jim Ozella, the baseball coach at Hart High School, still keeps the scorebook numbers just a few clicks away on his computer.

There was a first-round draft pick on the mound and a future NFL quarterback playing shortstop. But the teachers and coaches at Hart mostly remember the 18-year-old pitcher everybody knew as “Jamie.”

He not only helped win a state championship as a junior, but impressed his art teacher with his natural drawing skills during morning classes. He was the type of kid, Ozella says, that just wanted to win.

On that day in Santa Clarita, the Hart Indians were playing Centennial-Corona and star left-hander Mike Stodolka in the state quarterfinals. Ozella called on Jamie Shields in the middle innings. He had battled back issues for most of the season and pitched Hart to a playoff victory the previous night. But the ball needed to be in Shields’ hand again.

“It was a big-game situation,” Ozella says now.

Pitch after pitch, inning after inning, the two prep phenoms went toe to toe. At one point, with the score tied 4-4, Shields escaped a bases-loaded jam with a 3-2 slider. He finished two for five at the plate and allowed one hit in four innings. Stodolka exited after eight. And Centennial beat Hart in the 11th inning, when Matt Moore, now of the Miami Dolphins, misplayed a ball in short left field.

Shields was heartbroken. But life — and baseball — would go on. A few weeks later, in early June, the Royals selected Stodolka with the No. 4 overall pick, a potential ace on his way to the big leagues.

Shields waited until the 16th round, when Tampa Bay drafted him 466th overall.

From that point on, he was mostly known as James.

• 

If you’re a baseball fan in Kansas City, you probably know the story of Mike Stodolka. Like so many other young starters, the potential never surfaced. He scuffled in the minors. Decided to become a hitter. And that was that.

If you’re a baseball fan in Kansas City, you may just be learning about James Shields.

Last Sunday night, the Royals shook up the major leagues by acquiring Shields, 31, and right-handed pitcher Wade Davis, 27, from the Tampa Bay Rays in a seven-player blockbuster deal. The two arms came at a premium price.

The Royals handed over consensus minor-league player of the year Wil Myers, 22, a power-hitting outfielder; top pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi, 22; former top pitching prospect Mike Montgomery, 23; and minor-league third baseman Patrick Leonard, 20. Tampa Bay will also send a player to be named later in the deal.

The gambit comes with risk, of course. The Royals exchanged the promise of prospects for the instant gratification of a 30-something frontline starter.

Shields is just part of the Royals’ remade starting rotation. They also acquired right-hander Ervin Santana from the Angels and resigned right-hander Jeremy Guthrie to a three-year deal this offseason.

But so much of the burden will fall on Shields, a veteran with one turnaround story — a worst-to-first run in Tampa Bay — on his resume.

“Sometimes it’s as easy as getting one player that’s been through it,” Royals manager Ned Yost says.

Those that know Shields say he embodies the intangibles — leadership, integrity, passion — that the Royals covet.

“A lot of the motivation,” says Davis, a longtime teammate in Tampa Bay, “comes from him and what he brings to the table.”

• 

When James Shields was a senior in high school, a math teacher at Hart High School named David Montgomery took his 10-year-old son Michael to meet Shields for a personal hitting lesson.

Montgomery had taught Shields ninth-grade Algebra, and as far back as he could remember, the kid seemed determined to make baseball his life. Shields had older brothers that played and his cousin, Aaron Rowand, was about to make his major-league debut as a Chicago White Sox outfielder.

In the afternoons, fellow Hart students would often see Shields heading to the football field for long-toss, using the yard lines to mark the distance. At night, Shields would head to his part-time job at the local batting cage.

“All the Little League teams would go see him,” David Montgomery says.

One day after some tutelage from Shields, Michael hit his first home run.

In Santa Clarita, the Shields stories are now legend. Here’s another one: In 2002, when Shields underwent major shoulder surgery as a Rays minor-leaguer, he needed an equalizer to make up for the lost velocity. So Shields went into the backyard with his brother, messing around with changeup grips until he found the right one.

By 2007, his breakout season with the Rays, the changeup had become his signature.

“That is his pitch; that’s his baby,” says former Royals pitcher Brian Anderson, who served as an assistant pitching coach for Tampa Bay in 2008 and 2009.

“Every knows it, but there’s nothing they can do about it.”

When Anderson arrived in Tampa Bay in 2008, the Rays had suffered through 10 straight seasons of at least 90 losses, including 96 the year before. For years, the most hopeless franchise in baseball had played in a depressing warehouse of a stadium called Tropicana Field. But Shields, still just 26, was emerging as the leader of a young pitching staff.

He’d posted a 3.85 ERA in 2007, and then followed that up with a 14-8 record and 3.56 ERA in 2008 as the Rays won 97 games and the American League pennant. The Rays called him “Big Game” James.

“We developed a chemistry from ’07 to ’08,” Shields says.

Anderson remembers one day, when Shields showed up to the clubhouse with a stack of NFL jerseys for his teammates, personalized for every player’s favorite team. A small gesture, Anderson says, but something Shields did “just because.”

Davis, who debuted with Tampa Bay in 2009, remembers yearly meetings with Shields during spring training. Shields would verbalize everything the Rays’ pitching staff needed to do that season. And his work ethic rubbed off on Tampa Bay’s young corps of arms. Those Tampa Bay staffs were always close-knit, Anderson says, and that’s mostly because of Shields.

If there was a fight, Shields was the type of guy that wouldn’t back down. If a Tampa Bay pitcher needed to hear something, Shields was generally the guy that would deliver the message.

“We wanted to look back and say we were one of the big reasons that we won games,” Davis says.

Earlier this week, David Montgomery picked up a phone and got word that his former student had been traded to the Royals. In most cases, it would have piqued his interest. But this was no normal trade.

Montgomery’s son, drafted by the Royals in 2008 and now one of their best prospects, had just been traded for his former student. As David Montgomery digested the deal, though, it felt right. If a team would give up James Shields for a package that included his son, he could feel a little pride in that.

“He’s every bit as advertised a person,” he says of Shields. “He’ll just show up and give it his all.”

• 

In the last five years, only four major-league pitchers have thrown more innings than James Shields’ 1,115. Only five have thrown more complete games than his 17. And only 10 have struck out more batters. In the past three seasons, Shields has had a better ERA (3.76) than Zack Greinke (3.83) and his $147 million deal from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In baseball terms, Shields is a rare commodity — an innings-eater with swing-and-miss stuff; a rotation anchor with a competitive drive that may exceed his talent level.

“We’ve known that we’ve matched up with Tampa for over a year now,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore says.

To make the deal work, Moore says, the Royals asked for Davis. And on late Sunday night, the Royals had officially landed two-fifths of their starting rotation for four prospects. The instant reaction to the deal was divisive, bordering on vitriolic. Were Shields and Davis really worth the price? Shields, who is under contract for roughly $10 million in 2013 with a $13.5 million team option for 2014, says he hasn’t paid much attention.

“I’m not much of a computer guy anyway,” Shields says

Still, there are concerns. Shields, now on the wrong side of 30, has averaged more than 226 innings during his last three seasons, a notable amount of stress on his joints and ligaments. Royals officials say they see the innings as a sign of durability.

Other numbers suggest that Shields may be a few notches below “ace level.” In the last five years, among pitchers that have thrown at least 750 innings, Shields’ ERA (3.79) ranks 30th in the majors. And then there’s the home-road splits. In seven seasons, Shields’ ERA at home (3.33) has been more than a run better than on the road (4.54). Why? Shields isn’t quite sure.

“There really is no reason,” Shields says.

Maybe. And the home-road issue may also be little overblown, according to a study done by a stats-centric website, FanGraphs.com. For most of his career, Shields has been a flyball pitcher who occasionally gave up a lot of home runs. That combination often turned sour when Shields visited the smallish ballparks (Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Camden Yards) in the American League East.

Now, Shields comes to the American League Central — an environment more suited to his talents. If Shields benefitted from pitching home games at Tropicana Field, he can probably expect the same at Kauffman Stadium, a spacious park with deep power alleys.

“I go game to game,” Shields says. “I don’t really worry about whether it’s a road game or a home game. I just go out there to win.”

• 

On Wednesday morning in Kansas City, James Shields strolled into Kauffman Stadium for his first public appearance as a Royal. He wore a dark blue suit and a light blue shirt, a scruffy beard on his cheeks and an air of confidence on his face.

“The bottom line,” Shields says, “is this team really reminds me of that transformation (in Tampa Bay). The Royals are right on the brink of really becoming successful.”

Shields sees a rotation that pushes each other to be better. Moore envisions Shields battling for the Cy Young while pitching in front of one of the league’s best defenses. And Yost sees his young core of position players, arriving at the ballpark with a different vibe, knowing that they have a chance.

“The culture has to be created now,” Moore says. “You can’t just wait, ‘Well we got two or three years left of this window, and then hope an opportunity like this comes along — or hope everybody stays healthy.’

“I just think it’s important that we begin to start trying to win every single year.”

But if there’s a number that will define this trade, and Shields’ tenure in Kansas City, it will mostly certainly be found in the win column. Here, of course, we can stop and point out that the Royals haven’t played a postseason game in 27 years, a lifetime for so many of their young fans.

But if they do, if the fever breaks, if the time finally comes, all history be damned, the Royals now have a pitcher to send to the mound.

“That’s the kind of culture,” Shields says, “I’ve always been accustomed to… and I want to create here.”

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