Inning after inning, Rick Porcello left the mound slowly, deliberately, watching his feet the way a Swiss watchmaker watches his hands. But when the top of the ninth came around, Porcello paused in the dugout to see if Jim Leyland would tell him “you’re done” (that’s how it usually works) and when Leyland said nothing, the pitcher burst out and ran to the mound. The sellout crowd rose to its feet.
“Had you ever run into a standing ovation before?” he was later asked.
“No, that was awesome,” he said. “I got pretty excited.”
Understandably so. Porcello, in his career, had never made it to a major league ninth inning before. This was his first chance at a complete game.
You’d run, too.
A kid in a hurry. We forget sometimes that Porcello is all of 23. He’s been pitching for the Tigers four years now, with his first year, statistically, still his best, and that means much of the time, the sentence that shadows him is, “When already, Rick, when already?”
Saturday, for Porcello, was a healthy dose of “now.” He threw 94 pitches, 64 for strikes, moved his slider around nicely, allowed one run, and held off the first place White Sox long enough that they were no longer in first place when the game ended.
The Tigers were.
True, after racing to the mound to start the ninth, Porcello gave up two hits and was quickly yanked by Leyland, trying to preserve the win and the kid’s confidence.
“Stuff happens fast up here,” Leyland said.
That could be the title of Porcello’s book.
Putting questions to rest
When he arrived in the big leagues, Porcello looked like a high schooler and, at age 20, wasn’t much beyond it. He started 31 games, won 14, lost 9, and had a 3.96 ERA.
Today, he still looks like a high schooler, and, to be honest, he sometimes rushes as if late for class. His numbers are yet to match his rookie season, he gives up lots of hits, and he can try to make an already good pitch too perfect, paying for it with up and down performances this year, including one in which he gave up 12 hits in less than four innings.
But when he pitches as he did on Saturday, you see what the Tigers saw when they drafted him, and you wonder how we could ever question Porcello as a starter – let alone a fourth starter. He retired the first 12 White Sox he faced, gave up no extra base hits, kept most balls on the ground (as he usually does) and did it all in a pressure cooker situation.
“He was terrific today,” Leyland said. “He was gonna have to be with who we were facing.”
After all, the White Sox started Chris Sale, their All-Star ace with an 11-2 record who was leading the league in ERA. The Tigers batters finally chopped Sale down and sent him packing, but not before Porcello had outdueled him over seven innings.
Impressed? Now consider that this performance came as Porcello hears his name bandied about in trade rumors. Get another starter! Trade Porcello! He’s never gonna live up to his potential!
“I don’t really pay much attention to (the rumors),” Porcello said. “It’s out of my control. I can’t worry about that … I’m just trying to focus on helping us win.”
Tapping into his potential
Now, one great game doesn’t change the world – any more than being in first place in July. But I’ve seen pitchers traded in their late 20s and turn into much different performers for their new team. So are we really sure of what we have with a kid who’s 23?
“Do you ever feel older than your age?” I asked him after the win.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I have a lot to learn. Just because I’ve pitched in a bunch of games at a young age to me doesn’t mean much. I have a lot to learn, a lot to figure out. I still feel like there’s a lot of potential that I can tap into.”
We saw some of it Saturday. His pitching coaches see it every day. Maybe he is done improving, maybe he isn’t. But he threw a pretty one Saturday, on a day the Tigers needed it.
“What does it mean to be in first place?” someone asked Porcello.
“It doesn’t mean anything until the last day is over with,” he said, “and we’re still in first place and we make the playoffs.”
The words of a veteran, from a kid who still gets goose bumps trying to complete a game. Leyland was right. Stuff happens fast up here. Rick Porcello is walking proof.
Well, running proof.