KANSAS CITY, Mo. — James Shields knows what it’s like to pitch on opening day, and he had two of the best seasons of his accomplished career in Kansas City, so he also knows what it’s like to perform well at Kauffman Stadium.
Those are two reasons why the White Sox believe that the season opener Thursday (3:15 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago, 720-AM) against the Royals might be a good spot for him. Except that things just aren’t as they used to be for “Big Game James,” who won’t be the same James Royals fans saw in 2013 and 2014, when he posted ERAs of 3.15 and 3.21 and received Cy Young and MVP votes.
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That will happen at 36, with more miles on the tires, less velocity on the fastball and not as much of a pitch arsenal to work with.
“If you swing a hammer 45,000 times, you’re definitely not going to feel the same as you did the first time,’’ Shields said Wednesday.
That’s why Shields lowered his arm angle during his last 10 starts in 2017 and trained exceptionally hard during the offseason. The new delivery might not have won over Sox fans, whom he lost by going 4-12 with a 6.77 ERA in 2016 after they traded now-hot shortstop prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. for him. But Shields did have a 4.33 ERA down the stretch last season.
Perhaps he can win with guts, guile and just enough stuff to gain some of those fans back in 2018. It can start with the opener at a place he’s fond of.
“No matter how many starts I have on opening day, it’s always an unbelievable honor,’’ Shields said.
“I love this ballpark. The fans are amazing here in K.C. I’ve been telling the [young] guys that the atmosphere is amazing here, especially on opening day. So I’m excited to pitch here and start the season off.’’
Shields’ qualifications to be that guy: elder statesman on the staff, highest salary on the team ($21 million, $10 million of which is being paid by the Sox), a career with nine consecutive seasons of 200 or more innings, All-Star Game and World Series experience, 2,080 strikeouts (72nd in major-league history) and seven opening-day starts between the Rays, Royals and Padres.
Shields knows this is more than likely his last opening-day start, and he will soak it all in.
“I never take things for granted,’’ he said, “and to have four different teams to start for and to be able to do it eight times is still pretty special. Just like the first one, I’m excited about it.”
Rather than toss Lucas Giolito or Reynaldo Lopez into the opening-day fire they haven’t yet experienced or earned — they’re No. 2 and No. 3 in the rotation but are soaking in their first opening day on a major-league roster — manager Rick Renteria is going with the veteran.
“He has a calmness about him,’’ Renteria said. “He obviously has the experience and the mindset and the bulldog-type mentality to pitch. I think it’s important for us to have someone take charge in that regard. We hope he’ll give us a good start, a little length.’’
At a team dinner Tuesday, Shields’ calm demeanor was evident to younger teammates such as center fielder Adam Engel, one of nine Sox about to experience their first opening day.
“He just keeps you loose, reminds you it’s a game,’’ Engel said. “Especially games like [Thursday], where you can definitely get some nerves. Just one of many things that he’s taught all us young guys.”