'Big Game' James? Um, not yet
James Shields of the Rays has been called 'Big Game' James for some reason
Shields will start Game 6 of the ALCS against the Red Sox on Saturday
I'm a big James Shields fan. Big. I remember before the start of the year having an argument with a pretty prominent baseball guy about him. He said Shields was just another guy, a middle of the rotation, third starter, fourth starter guy. I didn't feel that way at all. I said that he was one of the better pitchers in the American League. Shields was a big reason why I predicted that the Rays would be a contender in 2008. And yes, I'm going to break my arm patting myself on the back again.
That said, I have NO idea how he got this ridiculous "Big Game" James nickname. Big Game James was Lakers forward James Worthy, who averaged 21 points and shot 54 percent in the playoffs. He was the MVP of the 1988 finals, and the Most Outstanding Player of the 1982 Final Four. He was Big Game James. He earned that, you know, by playing well in big games.
Shields? I'm going to pull out my inner Joe Biden here ... I've already told you I love the guy, but this has to be the most inappropriate nickname in sports since Andre Rison decided, rather bizarrely, to call himself Spiderman. How many big games has James Shields played in? He was a 16th-round pick in high school. He pitched for Hudson Valley, Charleston, Bakersfield, Montgomery and Durham for the better part of five years. He came up to a terrible Rays team, pitched pretty well. So there are 0.00 big games in those years.
So, I have to assume he picked up the nickname this year by pitching brilliantly in big games as the Rays shocked the world. I think, looking back, it's obvious where the concept began: Shields threw nine shutout innings against Boston in late April, a two-hitter. And I can see how a nickname can begin after a game like that. I can see all his teammates in the clubhouse patting him on the back and saying, "Yeah! Big Game James! Way to throw, Big Game!"
Thing is, everybody should probably forget it the next day. Think about this: You ask James Shields, "Hey, how did you get the nickname 'Big Game James' anyway?" If his response is, "You know, I threw a shutout against the Red Sox in April one year," that would probably not sound too convincing. This is especially true because the next time he faced the Red Sox he lasted exactly one inning and gave up four runs.
Did he pitch great games in big games? His best performances are as follows:
-- He threw a one-hitter against Anaheim on May 9. I guess that was a big game, sort of. May 9, though. Hey, every game counts the same, even if there is only one October.
-- He allowed one run in seven innings during a 15-3 victory at Florida in late June. Probably doesn't fit.
-- He threw eight shutout innings against a death-sprialing Yankees team on September 13 ... that legitimately was a big game, though probably not quite enough to write songs about.
So, that more or less is Big Game James' "Big Game" resume. He threw lots of GOOD games -- I've already said he's a good pitcher -- but the nickname isn't "Pretty Good Game James" or "Quality Start James" or "Will Keep You In The Game James." Big Game James evokes images of bloody socks and Yogi Berra jumping in your arms and Jack Morris in Game 7 and Sandy Koufax in his prime and all that. I just want a bit more than a couple of late-season victories against the Orioles.
And make no mistake: The nickname was already prominent -- certainly in the eyes of the TBS announcers -- when the playoffs began. Big Game James started Game 1 of the American League Division Series -- his first, legitimately, big game -- and he went 6 1/3 innings, gave up a three-run homer to Dewayne Wise, but won the game because Evan Longoria -- whose name should be "James" because he actually has had big games in big games -- hit two home runs.
Shields then pitched Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, and he pitched quite well -- 7 1/3 innings, two runs -- though he lost. The announcers must have called him "Big Game James" about 25 times during the game. Joe the Plumber didn't get that much nickname love.
Then Joe Maddon skipped James in Game 5 for Scott Kazmir (who was electrifying). I think that was probably a good move by Maddon ... Shields got absolutely lit up in his only appearance at Fenway, and he has been much, much better at home (9-2, 2.59 ERA, .351 slugging against) than on the road (5-6, 4.82 ERA, .477 slugging against). But the point for our purposes is simple: I'm not sure you can keep the "Big Game James" thing going once a manager skips your start. Isn't that a disqualifier? I suspect that Christy Mathewson didn't get skipped much.
Look, I do understand. The Rays are new money, like Tom Hanks in Big, they've never had any success at all. So everyone -- fans, media types, teammates, everybody -- is running around giddily buying home vending machines and giant indoor trampolines. They name a perfectly fine shortstop their MVP when they have two of the most exciting young players in baseball and a first base masher. They play hilarious anti-baseball statistics cartoons on the scoreboard. They give Shields a big game nickname before he wins the big game. People are feverish, and they're in a hurry, and I get that. It's a fun time. Everybody's jumping the gun a little bit.
And that takes me back to my Biden: I really do hope James Shields throws a Don Larsen at the Sox on Saturday. That would be great. I like Shields a lot, and would love to see him and Josh Beckett get into a Marichal-Spahn duel for the ages. And if James would win that game -- send the Rays to the most improbable World Series appearance since, what, I'd say, the Braves in '91 -- then I'd be all for revisiting the nickname thing. Maybe it's just me, but I say we let Big Game James throw the big game first.