ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — No one in Tampa Bay’s clubhouse is ready to declare James Shields the ace of the Devil Rays’ young pitching staff. But he just might be the most consistent starter.
Shields took a two-hitter into the eighth inning and Carlos Pena hit a home run for the second straight day Monday to lead the Devil Rays to a 4-2 victory over Kansas City and a split of a four-game series between last-place teams.
“He’s pitched so well,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said after Shields (5-0) had his ninth consecutive outing of at least seven innings. “The team goes out there with a different mental edge about it.”
With All-Star Scott Kazmir struggling to win, in part because of high pitch counts, Shields has been Tampa Bay’s best starting pitcher. He has one complete game and exited each of his other 11 starts with the lead or the score tied.
“That kid is pretty good. He’s been good all year,” Kansas City manager Buddy Bell said. “He’s athletic. Looks like he knows what he’s doing.”
Shields struck out five, walked one and was headed for his second straight complete game before giving up John Buck’s second home run of the day and a single to Tony Pena with one out in the eighth.
Relievers Casey Fossum, Shawn Camp and Gary Glover protected a one-run lead the rest of the eighth and closer Al Reyes came on in the ninth for his 14th save in as many chances. With two on and one out, Reyes retired Buck on a popup and struck out Mark Grudzielanek.
“He’s unbelievable,” Shields said of Reyes, who won the closer job after not pitching in the majors last season following Tommy John surgery in 2005. “He has an unbelievable amount of confidence. ... It’s nice to have a veteran pitcher late in the ball game.”
Pena’s home run to right-center off Gil Meche (3-5) was his 11th of the season. The Devil Rays added an unearned run in the third when Dioner Navarro was hit by a pitch, moved to third when center fielder David DeJesus muffed a fly ball for an error, and scored on Elijah Dukes’ sacrifice fly.
Doubles by Pena and Ty Wigginton produced another run for a 3-0 lead in the fourth.
That turned out to be enough support for Shields, who allowed two hits over the last eight innings of a 5-3 complete-game victory over Detroit last Wednesday and hadn’t yielded a run in 12 innings before Buck’s solo home run in the fifth.
“I made about two mistakes, and both of them were to him,” Shields said of Buck, who has 10 home runs.
The 25-year-old right-hander retired 17 of his last 18 batters in the complete game against the Tigers and was just as impressive against the Royals, retiring 11 in a row before Mark Teahen singled for Kansas City’s first hit with two outs in the fourth.
Buck’s second home run trimmed Kansas City’s deficit to 3-2. The Devil Rays added a run in the eighth on Carl Crawford’s triple and Pena’s double on a high pop fly that dropped between first and second base for an infield hit.
Meche, who has lost four straight decisions, allowed three runs and four hits in six-plus innings.
“He was good enough to win the game, good enough to keep us in the game,” Bell said. “That’s all we ask.”