UP-AND-DOWN NIGHT FOR NEW KID IN TOWN

Twenty years, four months and two days after his birth, Rick Porcello faced the New York Yankees. He walked to the mound slowly, like a much older man. He stood with the wind flapping his uniform top. The crowd was still arriving. The infield dirt was wet from its hosing. It was a cool April night, and Porcello, long and lean at 6-feet-5, touched his toes twice, then climbed into position. A man wearing the Yankees’ pinstripes eased into the batter’s box. He is one of the best players of his generation. His name is Derek Jeter.

What were you doing when you were 20?

Porcello, the rookie with the soft-featured face and brush-cut hair who, less than two years ago, was pitching a perfect game in high school, fired his first pitch to Jeter, a ball, outside, and he quickly fired a second pitch, which the Yankee dribbled to third for an easy out. The crowd clapped.

So the kid had just retired Derek Jeter.

Who does this? Who shows up for his first start at Comerica Park and retires a future Hall of Famer in the first at-bat? Who does it? Kids do it – in their dreams – all the time. In their dreams.

But this was no dream.

This was the youngest player in the major leagues facing the greatest franchise of all time. How he kept from throwing up is beyond me. Once through the lineup

Instead, Porcello maintained a steady expression, no smiles, no giddiness, as Johnny Damon – once a World Series hero – came to the plate. Mark Teixeira, who recently signed a $180-million contract, followed. Then came Hideki Matsui, nicknamed “Godzilla,” and former All-Stars Robinson Cano and Jorge Posada. Then came Nick Swisher and Melky Cabrera. Among them, those eight guys already had 29 home runs in the season’s first 20 games.

Porcello got through them all. Once. He survived the starting lineup without surrendering a run. Stop and think about that before you think of what came next. He held the Yankees scoreless for one inning, two innings, three innings. No, that doesn’t win you a game. But Porcello grew up in northern New Jersey, where kids are Yankees fans or Mets fans, and the former usually hate the latter. Porcello says he was a Mets fan.

And here were the Yankees in front of him. From the preps to the pros

We talk a lot about the NFL draft, and how a 21-year-old quarterback was just chosen to lead the Lions. But that 21-year-old already has played for years in college before 80,000 fans and has been nationally televised more than he can remember.

Porcello was throwing on a high school field two years ago, and in minor league Joker Marchant Stadium (capacity 8,500) as late as last month.

Now here. A nationally televised game? Against Jeter, Damon, Teixeira, Matsui?

What were you doing when you were 20?

Porcello didn’t last. He threw too many balls, walked too many batters and surrendered a three-run homer on a hanging 3-2 change-up to Swisher. Two more singles and a double off the wall, and Porcello was handing the ball to manager Jim Leyland and walking off in the fourth inning.

“He didn’t throw enough strikes, basically,” Leyland said after the game, an 8-6 loss. Down in the locker room, Justin Verlander, whom everyone thought was a kid when he debuted at 22, whooshed his cheeks. “National TV, Yankees, man,” he said. “I thought he did pretty good, considering all that.”

Eventually, Porcello emerged, looking every bit the young colt he is. He said he was disappointed he didn’t do better – especially after the homer. “The game starts to speed up on you. I gotta do a better job of slowing things down, taking a deep breath.”

A tough task for the youngest player in baseball. When he walked off the mound, a few fans rose and clapped. Maybe they realized how amazing, on a certain level, just surviving the night had been. The Yankees? Your home debut? Twenty years old?

One day, Porcello may look back and appreciate that stuff. Years from now. When he’s much older.

Like 30.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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