ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Years after a teammate had given him the nickname, James Shields last night finally got a chance to see if it fit.
It didn't. Not by a long shot was he "Big Game James," and somewhere Chris Flynn - the former minor league teammate who allegedly came up with it - should be extended a mulligan.
Originally penciled in to pitch Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park, Shields was pushed back in the rotation in favor of Scott Kazmir, so when the Red Sox rallied for an improbable win Thursday night, it thrust the spotlight squarely on the right arm of the 26-year-old from California. He embraced the opportunity, too, and up and down the Rays lineup, Shields was endorsed as the man who was best suited to push the team into the World Series.
The fact that he didn't is why he struggled to stay philosophical after Boston's 4-2 win forced tonight's Game 7.
"We're disappointed, but we've got another game," said Shields, who fell to 0-2 in this ALCS. "We've got to stay positive. We've got one more game. It's do or die and we're going to find out what we're made of."
Considered a better bet pitching at "The Trop" than Fenway Park, Shields never found any sort of rhythm and wasn't anywhere near the guy who averaged 14.6 pitches per inning, fifth best in the American League. Instead, he needed 37 pitches through two innings and eight Red Sox batters pushed him into a 30-pitch third.
Shields just couldn't explain it.
"I felt pretty good," he said, refusing to be baited into criticizing Derryl Cousins, the umpire who started behind the plate and called a tight game. "Early in the game I struggled a little bit finding my command, but later in the game I found my command and I kept us in the game as best I could."
If he failed at anything, Shields conceded it was the way in which he failed to hold the lead. His team struck first with a B.J. Upton home run in the first, but Kevin Youkilis led off the second with a tying blast.
"That's the type of inning you have to shut them down," said Shields, whose troubles worsened with a grueling third inning. With one out he walked Dustin Pedroia after a few close pitches did not go his way, much to the disgust of the home crowd. They booed, though Shields fought to maintain his composure.
"I thought I made some pretty good pitches," he said. "I was just missing tonight."
David Ortiz followed with a double and Pedroia came home on Youkilis's ground ball to make it 2-1. And despite walks to J.D. Drew and Jason Bay to load the bases, Shields got Mark Kotsay on a fly ball.
"I thought I did a good job of battling and trying to keep us in there," said Shields, though it never was easy. Never did he get more than three outs in a row and whereas he scattered just six hits in 7 1/3 innings here in Game 1, last night the Sox touched him for nine hits in 5 2/3 innings.
His teammates squared things with Jason Bartlett's two-out home run in the fifth, and Shields said it was the swing of emotion that his club needed. But it didn't last long.
"There's one thing I didn't do tonight - I didn't keep the lead," said Shields, who shared the team high with 14 wins this season. "I didn't do a great job of getting ahead of the hitters."
Case in point: the 2-and-0 pitch to Jason Varitek with two out and nobody on in the sixth.
"Fastball down and away, just trying to get a strike," said Shields, shaking his head.
Instead, Varitek deposited it into the stands in right-center, his first hit of the ALCS and it was the winning run.
"He's not the type of guy you expect to hit home runs off you," said Shields. "You can be aggressive a little bit. But he did a great job."
When Coco Crisp followed with a single (and eventually would score an unearned run), Shields's night was over, his effort falling far short of a nickname that he has carried, but didn't show that he deserved.