James Shields offered a taxed bullpen a significant boost on Tuesday night.
It was the sort of performance that earned him the nickname “Big Game” earlier in his career.
The right-hander pitched 7 2/3 scoreless innings and the White Sox offense did enough for a 3-0 victory over the Cubs in front of 39,553 at U.S. Cellular Field.
Shields lowered his earned-run average over his last seven starts to 2.11 as he worked around four hits and four walks with five strikeouts. The White Sox won their fourth in a row, including their second straight over the Cubs, and in doing so retained the Crosstown Cup. David Robertson recorded his 24th save in 28 tries with a perfect ninth.
“This is the guy we were thinking of when we got him,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “He came up big tonight, especially the way the bullpen is. I know he takes a lot of pride in that, he really does, of going out there and going deep into games. This is another one that we needed and he came through for us.”
An individual turnaround that began June 23rd in Boston reached its apex on Tuesday.
Since an atrocious three-start introduction to the White Sox, Shields has rediscovered some of the form that made him one of the top starters in the American League for the better part of a decade.
With the bullpen in need of a huge lift after throwing 19 1/3 innings in the previous four games, Shields delivered. White Sox relievers recorded only four outs and threw 19 pitches at time they needed it most. A number of close games and Chris Sale’s skipped start Saturday have White Sox relievers working in shifts to rest.
Shields provided that breather.
“He was a bulldog today, man,” third baseman Todd Frazier said. “He came out there and did what he had to do, saved the bullpen a little bit. You saw him out there. He was yelling at everybody, getting everybody fired up. That’s all you can ask for from him.”
All Shields could request of his teammates is to spare a few runs. They produced three for a pitcher who entered the game ranked 130th among 138 qualified starters with a 3.2 runs-per game support average.
Jose Abreu made it 1-0 in the first with an RBI single to score Adam Eaton, who hit a solo homer in the fifth off Kyle Hendricks. Tyler Saladino also forced in a run with a bases-loaded walk, the third straight free pass issued by reliever Travis Wood.
Shields took advantage of the limited support and put himself in better position to pitch deep into the game with quick innings in the fourth and fifth. At 56 pitches after three, Shields needed only five to retire the side in the fourth and nine more in the fifth.
He had more than enough to get out of trouble in the sixth inning. Having retired 12 of 13 into the sixth, including the first two outs, Shields walked Addison Russell and Jason Heyward singled. But Shields -- who also got Dexter Fowler to pop out on a 3-2 pitch with two outs and the bases loaded in the second inning -- retired the dangerous Javy Baez on a foul ball down the left-field line to keep the White Sox ahead by two.
“They worked the count in the second inning,” Shields said. “I had a few walks there. We had La Stella out, but he had catcher’s interference. I probably threw a little extra that inning, and I had to get myself back in the game as far as pitch count, and I ended up doing that the very next inning.”
The ability to make big pitches and pitch deep into games stems from the comfort Ventura thinks Shields has rediscovered on the mound. The stretch of four starts, including his last with the Padres, in which he allowed 31 earned runs in 11 1/3 innings and was singled out by his former team’s owner for poor performance, couldn’t have done Shields any favors. But little by little, Shields has worked his way back.
Shortstop Tyler Saladino said the renewed confidence is easy to see when Shields is on the mound. Saladino said Shields will engage his infielders and even position them at times, knowing and trusting where they are.
“He starts to feel that confidence that he’s making his pitches, he’s getting his outs, he’s in charge,” Saladino said. “And when you’re behind him watching all that going on, and he’s giving you feed back when you come back in, you just know that he’s locked in. So you just go with it, the flow of him and everything.”