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Rays, Shields square off for first time tonight

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Published:   |   Updated: April 30, 2013 at 09:45 AM

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -

They text each other nearly every day, wish each other luck on days they pitch, and if you think David Price was surprised to begin his season with a five-game winless streak, well, so was James Shields.

“I know David didn't expect that,” Shields said. “I know I didn't expect that.”

Yeah, Shields is in Kansas City now, wearing a different shade of blue and working his influence on a Royals pitching staff that is a bit wowed by his work ethic and bulldog determination.

But Shields' presence is still felt back in Tampa Bay, where Alex Cobb wants nothing more than to become the pitcher Shields is today, a reliable innings-eater who does not back down and who can anchor a good pitching staff.

“Who doesn't want to be that guy?” Cobb asked.

So, yeah, almost all agree it is going to be a bit strange tonight when the teams meet at Kauffman Stadium and Shields, the Rays' all-time leader in wins, is playing for the other guys.

“It's not going to be too strange to me,” Shields said. “What's going to be strange is looking at David Price and (Rays pitching coach) Jim Hickey in the other dugout.”

And Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore and Cobb, who starts tonight for the Rays.

Shields can't begin to count the hours he spent with those guys, sweating through workouts in the weight room and on the back fields at the spring training complex, playing golf, eating dinner during road trips, cheering them on from the dugout, seeing who could jam the most pieces of bubble gum in their mouth, patting backs and maybe kicking a little butt in the clubhouse.

They may no longer be teammates, but they remain close friends.

“Seeing those guys in the other dugout is going to be stranger than facing the (Rays lineup),” Shields said.

Shields was a big piece in the December trade that also sent Wade Davis and eventually Elliot Johnson as the player to be named for four Royals prospects, including much-heralded outfielder Wil Myers.

The Rays were shedding salary while building for the future. The Royals were adding a front-line pitcher to the rotation with the idea of competing for a playoff spot now.

Pressure?

“No, I don't feel any,” Shields said. “I don't. I'm going to go out there and pitch my game every five days. I'm going to compete and give my team a chance to win. I don't put added pressure on myself.”

Which is why Shields said aside from listening to Price chirp from the dugout — “I'm going to try and call all his pitches,” Price said — he won't turn tonight into anything more than another game.

Still, the Rays admit there will be some weirdness to seeing ol' No. 33 from 60 feet, 6 inches.

“It will be weird,” Ben Zobrist said. “I've always thought as I watched him pitch and the ball goes every which way, boy that would not be fun to face. Now I'll have to face him. I don't anticipate it being fun. You're seeing the cutter and the sinker and the change-up that everyone else is swinging through for years, and you're thinking, 'Why is everyone missing it?' OK, now we're going to find out.”

So who has the advantage? The hitters who've played behind Shields for so many years and know how he goes after hitters? Or the pitcher who has watched other pitchers pitch to his ex-teammates?

Both sides say they cancel each other out.

“It really comes down to just what it always comes down to with other pitchers. If he makes mistakes, do we hit them? If he throws the ball down the middle, am I going to be able to hit that ball hard? Ultimately that's what it comes down to no matter who's on the mound,” Evan Longoria said.

Rays manager Joe Maddon said what his offense will do tonight will be dictated by how well Shields pitches.

“It's still execution,” Maddon said. “When his change-up is working, the Yankees know how it works, the Red Sox know how it works, but he's still very good against them when it's going on. So I don't know that there's a real advantage.”

Said Shields, “It's going to be a nice little test.”

There will be time for visiting Wednesday, maybe lunch before everyone heads to the ballpark. But tonight will be all business. Maybe a smile here, a nod of the head there.

“I might smile a little bit,” Longoria said. “Especially if he gets me to swing and miss on a change-up 2-0.”

It is a game between teams who need a win — the Royals want to keep pace with the Detroit Tigers atop the AL Central standings and the Rays want to climb back to .500.

And it will become a game … once the initial shock of seeing Shields on the mound for the other team wears off.

“It will be weird. It really will,” Price said. “That's one of my best friends, and he's going to be pitching against us. I'm not necessarily rooting against the guy, but I'm rooting for our players. If we can win 1-0, that would be cool. If he can give up one unearned run and go nine (innings), that would be fun to see. I'm sure he'll get a kick out of it.”


rmooney@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7227

Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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