CHICAGO -- He's pitched many better games. He's pitched dozens that carried more importance.But you wonder, has James Shields ever felt the way he did when he walked from the mound to the White Sox dugout in the seventh inning of a 9-6 victory over the Twins on Wednesday night, with
CHICAGO -- He's pitched many better games. He's pitched dozens that carried more importance.
But you wonder, has James Shields ever felt the way he did when he walked from the mound to the White Sox dugout in the seventh inning of a 9-6 victory over the Twins on Wednesday night, with fans standing on their feet and clapping?
"I'm sure the fans were a little disappointed in my first couple outings," Shields said. "It's always good to have a standing ovation."
After one of the most disastrous four-start stretches imaginable, Shields is officially back in business. He hinted at his return to form last Thursday in Boston, but he confirmed it against the Twins.
And Shields did it after a here-we-go-again moment, when Eduardo Nunez whacked a belt-high changeup over the White Sox bullpen on his second pitch.
That could have startled any pitcher, especially one who entered the game with a 6.22 ERA. But Shields tuned out the doubt, along with the rest of the noise about the alarming start of his tenure in Chicago, over the next 6 2/3 innings.
This was the mentally tough, battle-tested guy the White Sox expected when they picked up a $27 million commitment to get him from the Padres on June 4.
"Attacking hitters and getting ahead of hitters," said Shields, who struck out five and walked one. "... I was getting ahead of hitters and throwing strikes."
Shields' return to form is great news for the White Sox, who continue to search for the magic they've lost since their 23-10 start.
"After the [homer], he got into a rhythm," manager Robin Ventura said. "This is the best he's looked as far as feeling comfortable. He was locating, getting ahead. He started really using his fastball and he located it. After that, there was some offspeed stuff and he got guys swinging through it.
"It was a nice little thing to see. I'm sure it was a breath of fresh air for him."
Ditto the White Sox, who survived the Twins' five-run ninth inning to bounce back to a .500 record. They're straining to see the first-place Indians at this point, and it's pretty easy to trace the cause of their 8 1/2-game deficit.
There are other differences between the teams, but the biggest can be found in the depth of their starting rotations.
Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer, Cleveland's fourth and fifth starters, have carried the Indians to a 19-7 record in their starts. The White Sox began the season with John Danks and Mat Latos in those roles, but they quickly moved elsewhere in hopes of an upgrade. That hasn't happened, as they're 6-9 behind Shields and Miguel Gonzalez.
Those 41 games with back-of-the-rotation starters have accounted for the difference in the standings. That's how high the stakes are for the White Sox in straightening out their starting pitching behind Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon.
Shields was front and center in leading the Royals to a World Series appearance two years ago. The Sox don't need him to carry that heavy of a load, but they would love to see him deliver quality starts in bunches, as he did early this season in San Diego.
But before that could happen, Shields had to shake the willies. He acknowledged this was as tough of a stretch as he's had in his career.
"I would imagine so," said Shields, who is 3-9 with a 5.85 ERA. "I would have to look back quite a ways for that. But it was a tough stretch. It's nice to get off the schneid and get a win, but I don't really focus on that kind of stuff.
"I've been around the game a long time. My main focus is to win games for the team right now. Cleveland's obviously on a hot streak right now, and we have to maintain what we're doing and win series."
In Shields' last start for the Padres and his first three for the White Sox, he allowed 32 runs on 32 hits and 13 walks in only 11 1/3 innings. He lost his rhythm somewhere along the way -- best guess: when he threw only 79 pitches over a 13-day stretch as he transitioned from San Diego to Chicago -- and pitching is all about rhythm.
Confidence, too. Shields' had to be pretty much shot.
"Being a veteran helps him," Ventura said. "There's been times [before], I'm sure, when he struggled and fought to get through it. He's been through it before. I think there's some sort of space in your brain that you get to and you have to be able to fight through it, and he's been able to do it."
Shields is one of those players who has always been bigger for his teams than his own personal stats. He pitched in a World Series, served as a mentor for David Price with Tampa Bay and helped create the feeling that the Royals could win after he was traded to Kansas City.
If Shields can bounce back to give the White Sox a big second half, it could go a long ways toward helping him get to the postseason with a third team. He's been talking up the possibilities he sees on the South Side throughout his recent ordeal.
"The guys welcomed me with open arms," Shields said. "I've been on a lot of playoff teams. I see winners when I see them. This team, the energy level just walking in here, makes me smile. That's why we play this game -- to compete and go to the playoffs and have a chance to win."
Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com.