Shields, Rays get comfy as contenders


Having exorcised the Devil from their nickname, the Tampa Bay Rays have played some blessed baseball this season and emerged as the game's surprising feel-good story of 2008.

The small-market Rays, who have baseball's second-lowest payroll, finished last in the rugged American League East last year for the ninth time in their 10 seasons. This year they have led the division for much of this season, though they dropped into a virtual first-place tie with Boston after a 13-5 loss to the Red Sox on Monday night.

Barring a total collapse over their final 14 games, the Rays (88-60) -- who trail the Los Angeles Angels by 31/2 games for baseball's best record -- will reach the postseason for the first time in franchise history, capping a near-miraculous turnaround.

But despite the Rays' sudden transformation from one of baseball's worst teams to one of its best, right-handed pitcher James Shields -- who has lived in Las Vegas during the offseason for six years -- said they won't be satisfied with winning the wild card. Tampa Bay leads Minnesota by seven games in that race.

"We'd definitely be happy either way making the playoffs, but right now we're at the point where we want to win the division," said Shields (13-8, 3.50 ERA), who threw eight scoreless innings Saturday in a 7-1 victory over New York at Yankee Stadium. "The next step after that is we want the best record in the American League, where we get home-field advantage. That's real important to us."

All Tampa Bay has done at Tropicana Field is compile the best home record in baseball, at 53-22, and sweep the likes of the Red Sox, Angels and Chicago Cubs there.

"Not many teams like to go into the Trop and play," Shields said. "It's not really a huge baseball atmosphere, but we like playing there."

The Rays have been dominant inside their dome despite drawing sparse crowds. They're averaging 21,441 fans at home, which ranks 26th of 30 teams in attendance.

"It doesn't really bother us as much as it's disappointing," Shields, 26, said. "The fans that are there are excited. ... They're just not coming to the games as much as we'd want to. But that comes in time. You've got to have a winning tradition to get people to go. Just keep winning and they'll come."

So with a payroll of about $43 million that couldn't cover the salaries of New York's Jason Giambi and Derek Jeter, how is it that the Rays keep winning?

Shields, who signed a four-year, $11.25 million deal in January that could eventually be worth $44 million over seven years, cited several factors -- including team chemistry; an unselfish attitude; scrappy, talented young players; embracing the underdog role; a few battle-tested veterans and a laid-back manager; and new owners who are committed to winning.

"The new ownership told us they would help us out, that they were 'in it to win it,' and I believed that," he said. "That's the whole reason I signed. I knew we'd have a good season and be a winning organization the next couple of years."

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg, who took over the team in 2005, boosted the payroll by inking players such as Shields, slugger Carlos Pena, All-Star left-hander Scott Kazmir and rookie sensation Evan Longoria to lucrative long-term deals.

The "big family" atmosphere on the team was fostered in spring training, when Tampa Bay brawled with the Yankees, and it was further strengthened in early June when the Rays duked it out with the Red Sox after Shields plunked Boston outfielder Coco Crisp with a pitch "to protect my teammate."

"We're not trying to prove anything to the Yankees or Red Sox," Shields said. "But what that proved is we have each other's back. That creates good chemistry and team unity. Put it all together and it creates a winning season.

"You can have as much talent and payroll as you want, but if you don't have team chemistry, you're not going to win ballgames."

A workhorse, Shields is the first Tampa Bay pitcher to notch two straight 200-inning seasons -- he's allowed 192 hits in 200 2/3 innings this year with 149 strikeouts and 37 walks -- and has come up big in the biggest games, blanking Boston on two hits and shutting out the Angels on one hit.

But he hopes the best is yet to come and has his sights set on nothing less than a storybook finish to Tampa Bay's dream season.

"The story's going to end when we win the World Series," Shields said. "That's the bottom line, that's our goal. We've proven all season long we can beat first-place teams. ... We have the confidence we can beat them, so the story's not over until we win the World Series."

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.

 

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