MIAMI -- By the ninth inning of Sunday's Rays-Marlins contest, the only remaining drama focused on whether James Shields would pitch a complete game.
Alas, Shields prevailed, allowing Tampa Bay to dodge a sweep at the hands of its Florida state rival with a 4-0 win in front of 15,432 at Sun Life Stadium.
The Rays snapped a three-game skid and moved to 2-3 on the current road trip, which will conclude with a three-game set in Detroit beginning Monday night.
Shields started the ninth by retiring Chris Coghlan on a groundout and striking out Hanley Ramirez. But when he walked Logan Morrison after being ahead in the count 0-2, most figured the hook was coming -- even Shields, who slapped the mound with his glove in disgust. At that point, all eyes focused on Joe Maddon, who could easily have justified pointing to his right arm to wave in closer Kyle Farnsworth.
Instead, the Rays manager let Shields finish what he started. And he did so by striking out Gaby Sanchez, who went down swinging at the righty' 126th pitch of the game.
"That was really stretching it there, but part of my rationale was two things," Maddon said. "He only averaged like 100 pitches over his last three starts, so he had cache left. The other thing, he was never tested or pushed in that game. The only thing that pushed him up until that moment was the heat."
Clearly Shields appreciated Maddon's decision.
"I think I put a little stress on Joe right there by walking that guy," Shields said. "It's just kind of one of those things. He let me go out there. ... I wanted to finish it real bad. Any time you're in the ninth inning, you want to finish it every time. I wanted to finish it bad. I was glad he left me out there."
Not only did the strikeout give Shields his third complete game of the season -- and second shutout -- it also established a new career high for him with 13 strikeouts. That tied the righty with Scott Kazmir for the most K's in a game by a Rays pitcher.
"It was pretty hot," said Shields of the heat, which stood at 87 degrees at the start of the game. "There was a nice little breeze, so it wasn't too bad out there. I felt great all the way to the end. I had my legs underneath me, and I wasn't gassed at any point in the game. I definitely made my pitches today."
Shields retired 20 of the first 21 hitters he faced. Gaby Sanchez singled to lead off the Marlins' second. Shields then set down the next 17 Marlins in order before Sanchez ended the streak with a two-out single in the seventh. Overall, the Marlins had just three hits on the afternoon.
Shields began to seriously think about pitching a complete game after the sixth inning.
"I looked up and I had about 72 pitches, and I knew this team's a free-swinging team," Shields said.
Florida manager Edwin Rodriguez called Shields "the story of the game."
"It's the first time I've seen him pitch against us, and he was showing command of all his pitches," Rodriguez said. "That was the best changeup I have seen this year."
Shields now owns a 5-2 record with a 2.00 ERA for the season. And in eight of his 10 starts, he has pitched seven-plus innings and allowed two or fewer runs. Those numbers are a far cry from how he ended the 2010 campaign, when he went 0-3 with a 7.00 ERA in five September starts, and 0-1 with a 10.80 ERA in one October start.
"So many people were piling on him last year," said Maddon, who talked glowingly about how hard Shields worked in the offseason to prepare for 2011. "He told me during Spring Training he wanted to finish games. That was one of his goals coming into the season. And God bless him, you can't take it away from the man."
Shields even managed to get involved in the team's offense on Sunday. He drove home the Rays' first run when he grounded to third with the bases loaded in the second. Greg Dobbs booted the chance, allowing Casey Kotchman to score and all runners to be safe. Once the dust had settled, Shields had his first career RBI -- or "ribeye" in clubhouse vernacular.
"My first ribeye of my career," Shields said. "I didn't even see it, but I guess the guy made an error. ... I'll take it."
Elliot Johnson then grounded into a fielder's choice to drive home Sean Rodriguez to put the Rays up 2-0.
Tampa Bay got busy again in the third when Evan Longoria doubled off Jay Buente with one out, and Matt Joyce doubled him home. Casey Kotchman's two-out triple then drove home Joyce to put Tampa Bay up 4-0.
Buente, who was selected by the Marlins from Triple-A New Orleans after Josh Johnson went on the disabled list, lasted just three innings against the Rays' offense, which scored four runs and had five hits against the right-hander.
Shields' win came at the right time after the team faltered on Saturday with No. 1 starter David Price on the mound.
"We definitely were in a little skid there losing games," Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach said. "That's what top-of-the-rotation starters do. They stop skids. If nothing else, your No. 1 and No. 2 have got to stop losing streaks. And [Shields] was able to do that today.
"David didn't throw the ball particularly well yesterday, and Shieldsy knew he had to come out and stop the losing."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.