Starting Opening Day commonplace for Shields

Starting Opening Day commonplace for Shields

MILWAUKEE -- When it comes to Opening Day, James Shields is the natural.

For one thing, this will be the sixth time he's done it. For another, he doesn't let the tumult of the occasion affect him. And finally, he just loves it.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a holiday for me and us as baseball players," Shields said. "It's the start of the season and we have one goal in mind -- to win the World Series and that's how you start it."

How Shields will start it this season is on Monday afternoon in Detroit, where he'll go after the elite of the American League Central, the Tigers, and their staff leader, Justin Verlander. Naturally, Comerica Park will be packed, and there'll be ceremonies, celebrities and general chaos. But hopefully, no rain or snow.

"He has a tremendous way of blocking things out and being able to focus on what he needs to do," Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said. "He competes as good as anybody I've been around. He's the perfect guy to pitch Opening Days. He thrives on big games like that."

Five previous starts on Opening Day have resulted in just one personal victory, and that came in his inaugural one in 2008. Pitching for Tampa Bay in Baltimore, he went seven innings in a 6-2 win over the Orioles' Jeremy Guthrie, now his Royals teammate.

"That was pretty special, considering I had made my debut in the same ballpark, Camden Yards, and I got a win out of it. So good stuff," Shields said.

It was pretty special, too, because it launched a Rays season that carried all the way to the first World Series berth in franchise history.

Shields lost to the Red Sox in the 2009 opener and had no-decisions in the '10 and '12 openers, but the Rays won both of those games. [David Price started the Rays' 2011 opener and lost to the Orioles -- and Guthrie.] After being obtained as the centerpiece of a big trade, Shields started Opening Day last year for the Royals in Chicago. He was sharp, but White Sox left-hander Chris Sale was just a trifle sharper and won, 1-0, on Tyler Flowers' home run.

The matchup of Verlander and Shields seems like Groundhog Day to the Tigers' big right-hander.

"It seems like every time I face Kansas City, it's with Shields going," Verlander said.

Not quite. But they squared off twice last year and neither earned a decision. On April 25 in Detroit, Verlander was trying to improve on a 15-2 record against the Royals, and he had a 3-2 lead when a right thumb blister stopped him. The Royals, with Alex Gordon hitting a grand slam in the 10th inning, won, 8-3.

Then on June 12 in Kansas City, the Royals again won in the 10th, 3-2, after Verlander had pitched shutout ball for seven innings. Shields gave up two runs, also over seven innings.

Verlander is a Shields fan.

"I really admire the way he attacks the zone. Every year, he's among the leaders in innings pitched, complete games, and that just comes from him attacking the zone -- good, bad, indifferent," Verlander said.

"A lot of times, he does really well attacking. Sometimes he gets beat attacking. It's just the name of the game. You just have to take your chances when you attack the zone as much as he does. And he attacks the zone, gets guys aggressive, causes some swings and misses off of that with his changeup, which is excellent."

Indeed, it's the changeup that has helped Shields make his name.

"Obviously, changeup is his pitch, but he mixes his pitches really well, between his fastball, his four-seamer, his two-seamer, his cutter, his changeup and his curveball. He's able to throw any of those pitches at any time on any count. That's what makes him effective," Eiland said. "He has one of the best right-handed changeups in the game, and it's a big-time swing-and-miss pitch."

Shields also controls both sides of the plate with all those pitches, and he employs another potent weapon -- probably the best right-handed pickoff move in the Major Leagues.

"He controls the running game and fields his position," Eiland said. "I mean, he's got it all. He's a bona fide top-of-the-rotation guy and a perfect guy to have start on Opening Day."

Aside from his pitching credentials, there's another reason the Opening Day honor goes to Shields. He rapidly became one of the team's most prominent leaders after his arrival in 2013.

"He's completely changed how this clubhouse operates, just the kind of vibe he brought over," said young pitcher Danny Duffy. "He's a good dude, a good leader."

"He pulled me aside to look at some video the other day, matter of fact, that actually really helped in the game. Just little things like that -- anything that he sees, he wants everyone to be at their best. Good dude, he embraces the role as leader on this team, and it's been really good having him around. I hope he sticks around."

While Shields is a pitcher of great attributes, there's a chance his Kansas City stay might end after this year. He's coming up on free agency, and so far, there's been no indication that the Royals might offer him a long-term deal to avert that. Shields said there have been no contract talks this spring.

"Right now, I'm just focused on the season, and I haven't really been too worried about it as far as the contract extension goes," Shields said.

Once Opening Day comes around, Shields said there will be no public comments about that matter. He'll be concentrating on winning games.

"It's an exciting time and an honor to start Opening Day, and to do it against one of the best pitchers in the game is good," he said.

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