© 2008 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

10/09/08 9:33 PM ET

When Rays in hard place, Shields a rock

Backed by 'confidence' and 'tremendous focus,' ace set for opener

ST. PETERSBURG -- Every matchup with the Red Sox this year felt like a playoff game for James Shields, with all that was on the line. Now that he has a chance at the real thing for the Rays in their American League Championship Series opener Friday night, Shields has some extra intensity to channel.

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"That's just the type of pitcher that I am," Shields said. "I like to get amped up. I like to get fired up for the game, and I treat every game the same. I think I'm able to control my emotions a little bit more and hone my aggressiveness into my pitching."

It's a sign of maturity for a relatively young pitcher, and a sign of progress in the eyes of his manager.

Once again, Shields will be pitching a series opener for the Rays at Tropicana Field, where the 26-year-old right-hander has been dominant this year. Not only did he go 9-2 in 17 home starts this year, his 2.59 ERA ranked third-best among AL starters at home this year. That included two wins in as many tries against the Red Sox, one of them a two-hit shutout April 27.

A packed home crowd is an extremely intense atmosphere for someone who has been an intense pitcher throughout his brief career, big crowds or small. What Rays manager Joe Maddon likes about his staff ace, though, is his veteran-like ability to make that energy work in his favor over the last couple years.

Shields vs. Sox in 2008
April 27
May 3
3 2/3
June 5
June 30
6 1/3

"He's really competitive," Maddon said, "to the point where when I first met him that first year, I was kind of trying to tone him down a bit, because he would actually get a little bit too assertive, I thought, during the course of the game. He's learning to control his emotions a bit ... and then he's got incredible focus and self-confidence."

Shields' shutout might well stand as an example of how a young pitcher can do that. Paired against Josh Beckett with a chance to finish off a three-game series sweep and pull the Rays back even with the Red Sox atop the AL East, he gave up a single to Dustin Pedroia, the second batter he faced, before retiring 10 straight batters.

With a 1-0 lead to protect, Shields made it hold until his offense could add on. When a Manny Ramirez walk and a stolen base put the potential tying run in scoring position in the fifth, Shields recovered to retire the Red Sox in order -- a Kevin Youkilis groundout and back-to-back strikeouts of Coco Crisp and Jason Varitek. Nobody reached base against him after a Julio Lugo sixth-inning single.

 James ShieldsDaisuke Matsuzaka
2008 regular season
Overall:33 GS, 14-8, 3.56 ERA, 40 BB, 160 K 28 GS, 18-3, 2.90 ERA, 94 BB, 154 K
Home/Road:Home: 17 GS, 9-2, 2.59 ERA Road: 13 GS, 9-0, 3.35 ERA
Key stat:4/1 K/BB ratio (sixth in AL) .211 OPP BA (first in AL)
2008 postseason
Division Series:1-0, 4.26 ERA 1-0, 5.40 ERA
Regular season:85 GS, 32-24, 3.96 ERA, 119 BB, 448 K61 GS, 33-15, 3.72 ERA, 174 BB, 355 K
Postseason:1 GS, 1-0, 4.26 ERA 5 GS 2-1, 5.11 ERA
At Tropicana Field
2008:17 GS, 9-2, 2.59 ERA 2 GS, 1-0, 1.80 ERA
Career:44 GS, 20-8, 3.23 ERA 5 GS, 1-2, 3.41 ERA
2008 regular season:4 GS, 2-2, 5.85 ERA 3 GS, 1-0, 3.00 ERA
Career:8 GS, 2-4, 5.23 ERA 8 GS, 2-3, 3.75 ERA
Postseason:First meetingFirst meeting
Loves to face:Kevin Youkilis (0-for-17) B.J. Upton (1-for-13)
Hates to face:David Ortiz (7-for-14) Akinori Iwamura (9-for-24)

It was that stretch, coming immediately after a sweep of the Blue Jays, when Maddon could see the belief building in his players that this was a contending team. He had already seen what he needed from Shields, who went on to 14 victories this year and a quality start against the White Sox to earn the win in the franchise's first postseason game in the opener of the AL Division Series.

"He's just got tremendous focus," Maddon said. "He just sees the catcher's glove, and he's got a lot of confidence. He's got a lot of self-confidence, beyond being good. He's got all this inner strength, intangible stuff, that permits him to be able to do these things in these moments."

Compared to his home dominance, Shields lost both of his starts at Fenway Park. The differences show in his splits against Red Sox hitters.

Youkilis is 0-for-17 against Shields for his career, including six strikeouts. Varitek is 1-for-10 with five strikeouts off of him. Jacoby Ellsbury also went 1-for-10 off of him this year.

The flip side, however, is the challenge Shields will face with David Ortiz and Pedroia. Ortiz was out of the lineup for Shields' shutout, but he got him later, going 3-for-3 with two doubles. Pedroia finished the season 5-for-10 against him.

Look for a tweak against Ortiz, but the key will be to ensure damage doesn't come with runners on base.

"I've always told people he's one of the most feared hitters in the box," Shields said. "This guy gets in the box and he pretty much covers the whole entire box. We've just got to be careful. I'm going to try to hopefully get the guys out beforehand, and if he hits one off me, hopefully it's a solo home run. But I'm going to try to change my approach a little bit as far as he goes."

Given Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka's 9-0 record on the road this year, including Boston's only win in nine tries at Tropicana Field, Shields likely has a duel on his hands. Somebody's dominance is going to have to give.

Shields is focused on not letting it be his. This is the matchup he wants.

"It seemed like every single series we played Boston this year was like a playoff game, whether they came to our yard or we were at Fenway," Shields said. "It's a playoff atmosphere when we play each other, and that's great. I think these are the two teams that need to play each other right now."

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