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With ace James Shields struggling, Royals may need different top option

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — James Shields was brought in to save the Royals' franchise and in many ways he has. He's changed the culture of the clubhouse in Kansas City, with raised expectations and fog and strobe lights, and he may be the player most responsible for this great baseball revival. But here now, on the biggest stage, Shields — the pitcher whose nickname has become a Twitter joke, a cruel taunt — is crumbling. Late Tuesday night in the Royals' clubhouse, he was left only hoping for one more chance.

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"I didn't get the job done tonight," Shields said after the Royals' 7-1 loss in Game 1 of the World Series. "Fortunately, hopefully, I get another start."

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There's no way around it: This has been a very bad postseason for the 32-year-old who is headed for free agency this offseason and may be costing himself a $100 million contract in the process. The pitcher who saved the Royals may also turn out to be the biggest reason why Kansas City's storybook October won't end with a parade.

The Royals managed to win the AL Wild-Card Game despite a bad start from Shields against the Athletics, and they managed to win the Division Series and ALCS without a shutdown start from their ace. But now, the struggles of their best starter may finally be catching up to them.

Kauffman Stadium was rocking when Shields unleashed the first pitch of the game, but his struggles at the outset seemed to suck the air out of the ballpark as he labored through a 32-pitch inning, which began with a leadoff single to Gregor Blanco on the fifth pitch of the game. After Buster Posey singled with one out, Pablo Sandoval doubled to right, setting up Hunter Pence.

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Shields went after Pence, the best fastball hitter on the Giants, with a fastball up on the seventh pitch of the at-bat. He paid for it, as Pence hammered the ball to centerfield for a two-run blast. Just like that, the Royals were down 3-0 facing the best pitcher of the postseason, Madison Bumgarner.

The final count on Shields: three innings, 70 pitches, seven hits, five runs, one walk, one strikeout, one wild pitch and just four missed swings. Shields' ERA this postseason over four starts: 7.11. His career postseason ERA: 5.74, in 53 1/3 innings.

"[Shields] was laboring at times with the secondary stuff," manager Ned Yost said after the game. "Normally when he's really, really good, he's spotting his fastball well and his changeup is dynamite, and he was really struggling to command his changeup tonight."

Said catcher Salvador Perez of Shields' fastball command: "It was surprising. Usually he's better."

Explained Shields, of his lost command: "Probably I was just overthrowing, amped up a little bit. The bottom line is I just have to get the job done."

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Shields' dud raises some big questions for the Royals going forward: Can they count on their ace again in this series? Should they consider starting Danny Duffy over Shields in a possible Game 5?

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"He's still your Game 5 starter, right?" Yost was asked after the game. "Yeah," he shot back.

Four questions later, the manager was asked again about Shields in Game 5 and his confidence in the starter.

"You have to know James Shields — you have to know that he's a tremendous competitor," Yost said. "He has the ability to make adjustments. Right now he just hasn't been as sharp as he has been. But with extra rest and then coming back five days from now, we think that will benefit him."

Of course, it was an all-around stinker of a performance for the Royals, who managed just three hits over seven innings off Bumgarner. The Royals' one big opportunity came in the third, with men at second and third and no one out after Mike Moustakas ripped a double down the rightfield line. Bumgarner struck out Alcides Escobar and Nori Aoki before walking the bases loaded, then escaped the inning by getting Eric Hosmer to ground out.

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"That was the biggest one," said Yost. "After Moose's double, we didn't have any opportunities to do anything from that point. [Bumgarner] just held us down and did a great job of getting out in front, throwing strikes with really, really good stuff."

But the big story for the Royals is the continuing struggles of Shields. It's unlikely that the Royals would at this point go away from their No. 1, but his recent performances suggest that he's hit a wall this postseason and that Kansas City should at least consider a different starter for Game 5.

What's going on with the pitcher who went 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA during the regular season? Maybe it's the workload catching up to him — he threw more pitches than any hurler in baseball this season, logged more innings than any in his league and is coming off a fourth straight regular season in which he's thrown at least 227 innings. Maybe it's his diminished changeup. Maybe it was, on this night, the long layoff between the ALCS and Game 1. Shields hadn't pitched in 10 days and looked rusty from the very first pitch.

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After the game, Shields was peppered with questions about the long layoff, and he shot them all down.

"Not an issue," he said. "Just made bad pitches tonight, and we faced a real good one. Tip your hat to Madison Bumgarner."

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Something had to give in Game 1: two red hot teams colliding, the Royals with their undefeated streak and the Giants on an 8-2 roll. Destiny vs. dynasty. Of course, after one game, the series is far from over. There's another game on Wednesday, and the Royals will have young fireballer Yordano Ventura starting against Jake Peavy, and given Peavy's struggles in the NLCS, Kansas City has to like its chances.

"I can't recall too many pitchers in my career that have his type of composure, his type of confidence and his type of stuff at that young an age, so we're really confident that he's going to come out and pitch a great game tomorrow," Yost said late Tuesday of his 23-year-old righthander, already looking ahead to Game 2.

Ventura may be able to pitch the Royals to a tie in the series, but for the Royals to give the city a storybook ending, they'll most likely need at least one more big start from Shields, maybe two. His time in Kansas City is likely coming to an end, but there may still be time for Shields to earn back his reputation this October, even though the odds may look like they are against him. This is that time of year when one game, one start, can still change everything.