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10/01/08 1:16 AM EST

Shields takes pride in long outings

'Big Game' James looks to go deep in first playoff start

ST. PETERSBURG -- "Big Game" James Shields began the season on a high note, and when he starts for the Rays in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. ET on TBS against the White Sox, he'll take the ball with high hopes of starting the postseason on an equally high note.

Shields allowed two runs on five hits in seven innings in the opener against the Orioles, which is a typical outing for the Rays right-hander. He can always be counted on to go deep in the game -- even if things go poorly for him.

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Take Shields' June 10 start at Anaheim. Shields surrendered six runs on 10 hits including two home runs, but he walked none and struck out nine. Yeah, he took the loss, but he pitched a complete game.

"I pride myself on being able to go deep into the game," Shields said. "You might have your best stuff maybe five or six times all year, so you have to learn how to pitch with what you have on those other 30 starts. You need to get your team to the late innings with a chance to win."

Recently, Rays manager Joe Maddon had Shields start the first game of the team's only two doubleheaders this season due to the sound logic that having him start the first game would ensure that the bullpen would be fresh for the second game. And Shields responded with wins at New York and Baltimore, going eight and seven innings and allowing two runs combined.

But Shields is more than a blue-collar pitcher. He can be nasty, which he showed in his two best starts of the season when he pitched shutouts against the Red Sox and Angels on April 27 and May 9, allowing two hits and one hit, respectively.

Save for a stretch when Shields went more than a month without a win (May 9 to June 25), he has been rock solid -- particularly down the stretch, winning five of his past six decisions. He has not lost since Aug. 26 against the Blue Jays. Dating to June 25, Shields has won 10 of his past 13 decisions.

Shields, by the numbers
Here's how James Shields has fared at home, on the road, vs. the Twins and White Sox and in the postseason:
Home, 2008: 9-2, 2.59, 17 starts
Road, 2008: 5-6, 4.87, 15 starts
Vs. White Sox, 2008: 0-0, 1.50, one start
Vs. White Sox, career: 0-1, 4.50, three starts
Postseason, career: has not pitched in the postseason
Did You Know? Shields almost attended Louisiana State on a baseball scholarship.

Shields' best pitch always has been his changeup, but he also has a plus fastball and curve, and he's added a cutter that has helped him throw inside to left-handers. In the past he has gotten himself into ruts by relying on his changeup too much, allowing opposing hitters to sit on the pitch. Given his current toolbox of pitches, he now gives opposing hitters a lot to think about, and he believes in the importance of fastball command to set up all of his pitches.

For Shields, the playoff start would be the first of his career. But based on the manner in which he has handled challenges during his three years with the Rays, Shields is a good bet to perpetuate his nickname "Big Game" James.

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