PEORIA, Ariz. — As debuts go, this didn’t mean much in any meaningful sense — just one inning in a spring-training game on the last day of February in front of a sparse crowd on a cool Thursday afternoon.
For all that, veteran right-hander James Shields was still pretty impressive.
“It felt a little weird out there, the first outing,” he said, “but everything felt great. It’s good to be out there again rocking and rolling.”
Shields breezed through a one-two-three first inning in 13 pitches against the San Diego Padres before heading to the bullpen for some supplemental work. He threw a mix of fastballs, touching 94 mph and working at 92, along with his signature change-up.
“No breaking balls,” he said. “I ended up throwing some cutters. Obviously, I was working my four-seam (fastball), and my change-up as well. It was a good start to the spring.”
That the Royals remained unbeaten by holding on for a 5-4 victory was incidental. This day was all about Shields, the guy the Royals obtained from Tampa Bay in the big Dec. 9 trade to front their overhaul rotation.
So this wasn’t just another inning.
“It’s funny,” manager Ned Yost said. “There’s just something about a guy who is a No. 1 guy. There’s that special aura, and it was definitely out there when he was on the mound. It was just really fun to see him out there.”
Shields began his day by throwing a 92-mph fastball that Will Venable grounded to first for an out. Shields broke out his change-up for a seven-pitch battle with Logan Forsythe that concluded with a fly to right on that 94-mph fastball.
After missing with two fastballs to Jesus Guzman, Shields pulled even in the count by getting swinging strikes on a pair of 85-mph change-ups. Shields then broke out a 91-mph fastball for a called third strike.
“All that really matters to me in spring training is to get my work in,” he said. “Obviously, you want to get that timing, get the release points and all of that stuff (down). But for a first outing, it felt great.”
Shields, 31, was the guy the Royals wanted to head their rotation. He was, by far and away, their first choice after surveying the field.
“You scout all of the players, obviously,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “I think everybody anticipated that with the abundance of quality pitching that Tampa possessed, that there might be a pitcher or two available.
“Shields became available. We knew him well based on our scouting and statistical analysis. We knew, obviously, that he would improve our team.”
The price was steep.
The Royals surrendered outfielder Wil Myers, the consensus minor-league player of the year, along with pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery along with third baseman Patrick Leonard for Shields, pitcher Wade Davis and utilityman Elliot Johnson.
“If you focus on what you’re giving up, emotionally, you really get involved,” Moore said. “You have to focus on what you’re getting and how it’s helping your team and the future of your organization.
“If we don’t start winning, we’re never going to be ready to win. We’ve got to start. I can’t predict we’re going to win our division or whatever, but we’ve got to start.”
The trade followed moves earlier by the Royals in the off-season to acquire right-hander Ervin Santana from the Angels and to retain free-agent Jeremy Guthrie.
“I think they’re trying to win,” Shields said. “I think Dayton did a great job of bringing in some guys — myself, Wade, re-signing (Jeremy) Guthrie and, obviously, bringing in (Ervin) Santana. For me, I’m excited.”
But Shields was the lynchpin.
“You see his work ethic,” Yost said. “He’s got incredible intensity. He’s a really competitive guy. You could tell from just watching him on the mound today. It was different.
“The intensity, the focus and the competitiveness when he stepped on that mound was really impressive. To me, it’s quite apparent he is what he is because of the way he goes about his business. He knows how to develop teammates, and he works at it really hard.”
Shields drew early praise from Danny Duffy, who told the world through Twitter on Feb. 11: “Been 2 days and i can already tell my dude Shields is one of the best teammates ill ever have. Solid solid dude.”
Another example occurred Wednesday when rotation candidates Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen made their spring debuts in a 3-2 victory over Milwaukee. Other starting pitchers are not required to be on the bench in spring training when they don’t pitch.
Shields was there to watch Hochevar and Chen. So was Wade Davis, the other starting pitcher the Royals acquired in the big trade with Tampa Bay.
“I’m a new guy,” Shields said, “and I wanted to take a look at their first outing and see how they are. I’m the type of guy who likes to talk to all of the starters. I’m all about feeding off each other.
“There might be some things that maybe (pitching coach) Dave Eiland may not see but players may see. I’m a big talker between starts with the guys to try to get everyone on the same page.”
The Royals delayed Shields’ debut until Thursday because Eiland believes six spring starts are the optimal number to prepare for the regular season.
“With this extra week (of spring training),” Eiland said, “if I put them in early, they get seven starts. That’s too many. They don’t need it.”
Shields also sees no need to push things early. One inning followed by another 15 throws in the bullpen were more than enough.
“Normally, we’re starting games in March,” he said. “We wanted to keep things simple and take our time with this thing. We’ve got a long season to go.”
True enough, but it’s hard to see Thursday as anything but a small step in the right direction.