James Shields is unlikely to go down as one of White Sox fans’ most beloved pitchers.
It was always going to be hard to erase the memories of his first two seasons on the South Side, which saw him post a 5.99 ERA and give up 58 home runs.
But Shields, a 36-year-old veteran who doesn’t figures to have much of a place in this rebuilding franchise’s long-term plans, made a heck of an impact and did a heck of a job during this losing season, one that could end up being felt when the team does transition to contention mode.
Shields capped his 2018 season with another six innings Tuesday night. It didn’t end up his 20th quality start of the season, with him giving up four runs, but he reached the 200-inning mark for the 10th time in his 13-year major league career, as good an example as any of how reliable and how steady a veteran presence he’s been this season.
As of this writing, baseball’s 200-inning club in 2018 looked like this: Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Aaron Nola, Zack Greinke, Dallas Keuchel and Shields.
“Going into this season, I was really taking pride in being able to get to that 200 mark again,” Shields said. “It’s my 10th time I’ve done it in my career, so that was kind of looming over my head a little bit, and to be able to get that, it’s just all the hard work I’ve put in this year and I’m really really proud of that.”
The other numbers might not scream “overwhelming success” of a season, even if it was by far his best year in a White Sox uniform. Shields finished with a 4.54 ERA and 154 strikeouts. The 34 home runs he gave up are the second most in baseball. His 78 walks put him in the top five in the game in that category.
But Shields’ impact has been as much about what he’s done off the mound as what he’s done on it. He’s served as a mentor to this team of young players, one that keeps getting younger with every highly touted prospect that gets his call to the big leagues. He’s been a particularly strong influence on Lucas Giolito, with the two set up next to each other in the clubhouse all season — that is until Michael Kopech arrived and Shields requested Kopech slide in between him and Giolito, again for mentoring purposes.
That’s a valuable thing on a team that figures to stay young as this rebuilding process moves along toward planned contention.
“I think more than anything, when you see how he’s continued to pitch and work through all of the things he’s done over the course of his career, I think he’s been a big factor by example,” manager Rick Renteria said prior to Tuesday’s game. “He goes out there and shows you how to get through innings, grind through some rough outings and continue to eat up outs. I think these guys are seeing it. He’s been someone that’s shown them why he’s been around for so many years.
“I think these guys have taken on some of his personality, some of his traits. Hopefully it’s something they can cling to and continue to help each other with. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have someone that’s something like that. He’s done everything he could to help with both between the lines and being in the clubhouse.”
“I’ve done it my whole career,” Shields said of that leadership, mentorship role. “Ever since I was in Tampa, I’ve prided myself in being a leader in this clubhouse and just helping the guys out and being a good teammate. Hopefully these guys take all of the advice and the experience that I’ve had over the years and take it to heart.”
Shields’ 2018 season is over, but is his time on the South Side?
He is expected to hit the free-agent market this winter, though given how impressive he was as a reliable arm and as a team leader in 2018, perhaps the White Sox opt to bring him back. Not only do they have a recent track record of making similar additions — see Hector Santiago and Miguel Gonzalez this past offseason — but they have a need in the starting rotation, two holes to fill in Shields’ spot and that of Kopech, who will miss the 2019 season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
It’s an option, if it’s something Shields and the White Sox both want to do. Certainly he’s given them reason to consider it with what he did this season.
“We’ll see where life takes me after this season’s over,” Shields said. “I’ve loved my time here, the guys are great, the coaching staff’s a great coaching staff, and the training staff, I can’t say enough about what they’ve done for me over the last three years. And just the organization itself has been an amazing organization to be a part of. So we’ll see where it goes this offseason.”
Thanks to a 6-0 loss to the Pirates Tuesday night, the Cubs are in an uncomfortable position in the NL Central division with just a half-game lead and five left to play, yet the clubhouse remains confident.
In fact, Mike Montgomery — who surrendered five runs on seven hits in four innings Tuesday — said after the game that this loss might serve a positive purpose.
"We got a resilient bunch of guys. We know where we’re at, and it’s kind of a little bit of motivation," Montgomery said. "We gotta bring it these last five games. Our guys know that, we’re not going to get discouraged. We’re going to regroup and get ready for tomorrow."
The Cubs have little choice but to bring it, especially with the red-hot Brewers scoring more runs on Tuesday night (12) than the Cubs have in their last three games combined. The Cubs did score 8 and then 6 runs on Saturday and Sunday on the South Side, but they turned around and put up only a single run Monday night before being blanked Tuesday.
Joe Maddon said after the shutout loss that the up-and-down nature of his offense is a frustration.
"We're not happy. And again it’s really coming down to the one component of the game we just haven’t been good at recently, and that’s offense," Maddon said. "And then you have to be careful because guys start pressing even more."
In the loss, the Cubs got four hits off of Pirates starter Chris Archer, but he struck out nine and squashed any remote scoring opportunity almost as quickly as it arose. Whether or not the lineup is pressing, they struggled to put together good at bats against Archer.
"This has been going on for a bit — our offense has been very inconsistent. I mean, Archy was good, but we just got to fight through that, especially this time of the year," Maddon said.
Leadoff man Daniel Murphy started the game with a promising single for the Cubs, but the rest of the lineup couldn't turn that into a go-ahead run. The Pirates followed up with a three-run homer in the second inning, setting the Cubs up to chase for the rest of the night.
"Our concept of scoring first is going to be pretty important," Maddon said of the next five games. "We have to grab the lead and hold on to it."
But, like Montgomery, Murphy saw some positive takeaway from Tuesday's loss.
"I think that what this club has done a really good job of is kinda washing off a poor performance, which is unfortunately what we've had the last two nights," Murphy said. "We'll go home, we'll sleep up, see our families, and see if we can come in here tomorrow and play a little bit better."
The pressure of a very close division race that is coming down to the final days is real, and Montgomery said that it creates the win-or-go-home playoff atmosphere in these last games. That's a challenge he and his teammates are up for.
"We’ve grinded out this whole year. We have a lot of good players, a lot of guys who have been through a lot of different things," Montgomery said.
He knows a bit about that, having pitched the final out of the 2016 World Series. The core of the group that won that championship is largely still intact, but the success of the postseason two years ago feels further away in history when the picture to win the division is looking increasingly bleak.
Unless the Brewers slow down, the Cubs are in a position where they have to nearly win out to keep from losing their hold on the NL Central. That said, they are a virtual lock for a postseason spot no matter what, thanks to the wild card.
Not really a desirable outcome for a 90+ win team, but a loss for the Cardinals and a win for the Rockies on Tuesday put the Cubs' magic number to at least get in to the postseason down to one.
But that's not the outcome the team is expecting, and certainly not the one they're shooting for. Montgomery said that losing both the pitching and the hitting battle to the Pirates Tuesday is a little fuel for the Cubs.
"Take it like every game matters from this point on," Montgomery said of the team's mindset for the next five days. "Our guys are equipped for that, and mentally this gives us a chance to really come together as a group and go out there and perform our best baseball."