PITTSBURGH -- The only opponent that has beaten Rick Porcello since mid-April is rain. On a sunny May Sunday afternoon at PNC Park, that didn't give the Pirates much hope, once Porcello found his form.
When the Tigers skipped Porcello's rotation spot following last Tuesday's rainout, the question immediately turned to what kind of rust he might battle in Pittsburgh on 11 days' rest. Eight innings of one-hit ball over just 84 pitches provided a pretty good answer. The resulting 2-0 win provided a stop to the Tigers' five-game losing streak.
The Tigers still have concerns about their offense heading back to Detroit for a 10-game homestand. They do not have to worry about their 22-year-old starting pitcher, however, who will gladly take his next two assignments on regular rest, weather permitting.
"We've got to hope that a good win gets us going a little bit, and we start relaxing a little more and swinging the bats a little bit better," manager Jim Leyland said. "Our starting pitching's been very, very good."
For this just-finished five-game road trip, Porcello was statistically the best of the bunch, though he hadn't pitched since the Tigers' last road trip in Minnesota. When Tuesday's game against Toronto was rained out, Leyland opted to keep Phil Coke and Justin Verlander on their regular turns the next two days. The pitching from Coke and Verlander backed up the decision, even though the Tigers didn't win.
It was the second time Porcello had been skipped over in an unbeaten streak that now spans six starts over a six-week stretch since he lost his first two starts of 2011. He started at Cleveland on 10 days' rest on April 30 and turned in seven innings of two-run ball with seven strikeouts in a no-decision.
Porcello topped that on Sunday, on rest as well as results. All that stopped him on Sunday was a two-run lead and Leyland's decision to go to closer Jose Valverde for the ninth, but more on that later.
"He's a smart guy and a good concentration guy," Leyland said of Porcello. "And he's always going to be prepared. He's like a position player. He's like Donnie Kelly; he's always ready."
For someone so young, it's a weighty compliment.
Porcello's Cleveland start on long rest was planned out well in advance, given the Tigers had two scheduled off-days in a five-day span. This one was more improvised. His approach, too, was a little different, because he was facing an opponent he hadn't seen in two years.
Porcello said he used the extra time to work on secondary pitches -- mainly a slider that he wanted to make more consistent, but also a curveball that he hasn't used often since last year.
Once the series started, Porcello said, he learned as much as he could from observation.
"I just tried to stay focused and stay locked into the games leading up to my start," Porcello said. "Especially a team like this that we haven't seen all year, [with] a lot of the hitters you don't really know that well, I was trying to watch those two games prior to see what Brad [Penny] did to them and see what Max [Scherzer] did to them and pick up as much as I can. The hardest part about that is just staying sharp, mentally."
Porcello saw a dangerous leadoff man in Andrew McCutchen, whom he wanted to avoid giving ground balls and chances to beat throws. He also saw power hitters -- notably Neil Walker and Garrett Jones -- who could punish offspeed pitches in the strike zone.
"They were swinging early," Porcello said.
So when Porcello and catcher Victor Martinez took the field for the first, they came out with a heavy dose of sinkers before they changed speeds.
"He definitely had all his pitches," Martinez said. "I knew when we left the bullpen, he was going to have a good day. His two-seam fastball, his sinker, it was unbelievable. It was big, heavy. When he's got that pitch, the rest of the pitches just keep the hitters off balance. He did a great job."
The only difficult ball Porcello faced the first time through Pittsburgh's lineup was one he caught himself, when he snared Walker's second-inning liner. After a fourth-inning leadoff walk to McCutchen, Porcello mixed pitches and retired the next six batters.
Ronny Cedeno broke up the no-hit bid by pouncing on a first-pitch fastball for a double leading off the sixth. Pinch-hitter Xavier Paul sacrificed Cedeno to third, but after another walk to McCutchen put the potential tying run on base, Porcello escaped with a double-play grounder from speedy Jose Tabata.
Porcello needed just 84 pitches to cruise through eight innings. He produced as many base hits at the plate as he allowed on the mound.
"He was just throwing a lot of strikes," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "You look at his pitch count after he went out after eight innings; you're not going to see many lower the rest of the season. When a guy is sinking the ball and has enough late life with the slider and changeup and throwing strikes with it, you can't sit there and take two strikes, hoping that he misses."
Casper Wells' opposite-field, two-out RBI single in the second inning and Jhonny Peralta's seventh home run of the year in the fourth built a lead for Porcello to protect. After that came a decision Leyland knew would be second-guessed, but one he said he didn't debate.
"This is worth a second guess for everybody in America, particularly starting pitchers, but to me, it's a no-brainer," Leyland said. "To me, unless it's some guy that's just totally lights-out, still overpowering, in my opinion, a top-notch closer is supposed to be better than your starter. After your starter pitches eight innings, if you've got a top-notch closer, he's supposed to be better.
"To me, we had the best guy out there for the ninth inning, no matter how it turned out."
Porcello got it, even if he hoped Leyland would decide otherwise.
"The competitive part of me definitely wanted to finish the game," Porcello said. "But I understand. You feel good about him coming in and closing the game out, for sure, and we needed this one bad."
After Paul's leadoff single and a McCutchen hit-by-pitch, it looked iffy. Valverde struck out Tabata on three pitches before Jones' groundout shifted the runners to second and third, moving the Pirates within a hit of a tie game. Valverde put Walker in an 0-2 hole before he grounded out, wrapping up his 11th save in as many chances.