Insider: Shields, Rays Salvage Series vs. O’s

After starting the weekend series with two disappointing losses to the Baltimore Orioles, the Tampa Bay Rays proved that nine was better than eight on Sunday. On Friday, Jeremy Hellickson bounced back from last week’s disappointment; only to watch the bullpen give up the game late. In the middle game, Matt Moore failed to complete five innings for the second straight start. The Orioles took advantage of the some friendly fire (five errors committed by the Rays’ defense) and chased the 22-year-old after just 4.1 innings. With staff ace, James Shields, on the mound in the series finale, the team escaped with a narrow 9-8 victory.

Shields’ final line (6.1 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 1 HR) is a bit misleading. He was cruising for most of the afternoon before running into trouble late. Of the seven hits allowed, four came after the fifth inning including a Matt Wieters 2-run home run in the sixth inning. After allowing leadoff single in the seventh, it appeared as if Shields induced a double-play groundball; however, an error by Will Rhymes allowed the runner to advance safely and the batter to reach first base with no outs . Both runners would score (unearned) later in the inning.

Overall, Shields threw 104 pitches (67 strikes). He received 10 whiffs and generated 11 groundball outs. Earlier in the season, I noted that 30-year-old was getting more groundballs than usual. While the sample size was too small back then, we are past the point where groundball rates tend to stabilize.

Shields has faced 225 batters this season. His groundball rate stands at 60%. That rate is the third highest rate in the American League (Derek Lowe, Jason Hammel), and comes in quite a bit higher than his 44% career mark. Unlike most starters with high groundball rates, Shields has not relied on a sinker to get his grounders.

Instead of the conventional sinker, Shields uses his secondary pitches (changeup, curveball, cutter) to keep the ball close to the Earth. Of the 95 groundballs induced by the right-hander, 75 of them have come from the changeup (39), curveball (19), or cutter (17).

The bulk of the grounders hit against Shields have come in even or pitcher’s counts. These situations allow him to be unpredictable, throwing his secondary offerings with regularity. Pitch usage is one reason, but his ability to command pitches also comes into play. Not surprisingly, most of the damage is coming in the mid-to-lower portion of the strike zone while working away to lefties and across the horizontal plane to right-handers.

Groundballs become hits more often than flyballs; however, a groundball is less likely to become an extra-base hit. Shields has allowed 19 hits on groundballs; 16 of them singles. Coming into Sunday’s game, 30% of hits off him this season went for extra bases. This is down from his 33% rate last season and his career mark of 34%. He allowed four extra-base hits on Sunday, but none on the 13 groundballs hit by Baltimore.

Although the Rays staff gave up eight runs, the offense received an unexpected boost from Elliot Johnson. As part of the cascade effect due to injuries to Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings, Rays’ manager Joe Maddon has been forced to play guys like Johnson more than he probably would like. That said on Sunday, the light-hitting infielder went 3-4 with a home run.

Johnson’s second home run of the season was the first of back-to-back homers in the eighth inning as Ben Zobrist, who also went 3-4, lifted his fifth home run of the season. Earlier in the game, Zobrist belted a 2-RBI double. In addition to Johnson and Zobrist, Matt Joyce (2-5), Carlos Pena (2-5), and Will Rhymes (2-5) each had multi-hit games.

After playing uncharacteristically bad defense for most of the series, the Rays defense came up big late. Sean Rodriguez began the day on the bench with soreness; however came on late to replacement Jeff Keppinger at third base. The Rays’ primary shortstop made a pair of dazzling plays at the hot corner including one for the final out of the game. On the receiving end of Rodriguez’s throw was Carlos Pena, who made a nice scoop after missing a catch earlier in the inning. Fernando Rodney received credit for his 10th save of the season, but the assist goes to Rodriguez.

The Rays continue their 8-game road trip with a brief two game series in Toronto. Standing between them and a .500 road trip is Brandon Morrow and Henderson Alvarez. The Rays will counter with Jeff Niemann on Monday and David Price on Tuesday. Desmond Jennings, who has not started in any of the previous six games, could provide a much needed boost on offense and defense.