Porcello sets tone for win in opener
Bottom of Tigers' order comes to life in fourth inning
DETROIT -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland openly worried about the Rays' combination of power and speed heading into this series. Rick Porcello silenced almost all of it.
As a result, the 20-year-old rookie added another milestone to his list, and the Tigers' 6-2 win Friday night at Comerica Park added another game to their division lead.
"That's pretty impressive for a young kid," Leyland said. "He got out of a couple jams."
His success, combined with Robinson Cano's walk-off homer at Yankee Stadium, put the White Sox further into a jam in the division. While Detroit's lead stayed at 4 1/2 games over Minnesota, it's up to five games over Chicago.
Just as critical for the Tigers, Porcello seems to be back in form and giving opposing hitters a little twist off his sinkerball.
Tampa Bay came to the Motor City as one of just four American League teams with 164 homers and 164 stolen bases in the same season, but the Rays picked up none of either against Porcello (11-8). They had a chance to pick up runs early, but Porcello thwarted them at three different situations, often with his change of speeds.
That in itself is a changeup for Porcello. As his success grew over the summer, hitters began to look for the sinker and center it more often.
This new game plan, helped by catcher Gerald Laird, is the countermeasure.
"It's big to keep guys off the sinker and also to kind of hide it a little bit," Porcello said. "Some guys, I was throwing a lot of four-seamers early to them and trying to run sinkers in late. They know I'm trying to come in on them, but they haven't seen it yet."
That proved big in the opening inning after Carl Crawford's one-out bunt single and Brandon Inge's fielding error on Evan Longoria's ground ball put runners at first and second for the big power portion of the Rays order. Porcello mixed fastballs and sinkers to former Tiger Carlos Pena early, snuck in a changeup on a 2-1 pitch for a big foul ball, then caught Pena looking at a sinker on the outside corner for a called third strike.
An eight-pitch battle with Pat Burrell ran the count full before Porcello dropped a breaking ball on him, sending him swinging for strike three.
"That mix of pitches was big for us to get out of that inning and get off on the right foot as far as the rest of the game was concerned," Porcello said.
Detroit's defense, too, came into play. Another Inge error and a walk to Jason Bartlett put runners back on first and second in the third inning, this time for the 2-3-4 hitters in Tampa Bay's order. After Crawford sacrificed the runners up a base, Longoria pounced on the first pitch he saw for a solid line drive that Inge snared. Porcello fell behind on Pena, but Granderson ran down his drive to center.
Porcello needed one more escape out of a similar jam in the fifth, using fastballs to get a fly ball from Crawford and a strikeout from Longoria.
Although Porcello's power hasn't always been evident in games, his fastball topped out in the mid-90s on occasion. The Rays struggled to catch up once he turned to the sinker.
"He really had a lot of movement on his fastball," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "When you see guys just chopping balls into the front of the home plate area, which was really manicured nicely soft -- the ball was just exploding into that mud there -- you can see that the guy has some really good late movement."
The late success that goes with it put Porcello (11-8) into some good company. His 11th win matches him with Dave Rozema for the most in franchise history by a pitcher before turning 21. Rozema won 15 games in 1977, but 11 came before his 21st birthday on Aug. 5.
Porcello left after Gregg Zaun's RBI single in the sixth, but Detroit's bats had already done their damage. Inge's second-inning solo homer and two-run doubles from Laird and Adam Everett paced an offensive surge off Rays starter Matt Garza (7-9). He lost his half of the pitching duel when he allowed six straight Tigers to reach base safely in the fourth.
All those fourth-inning runners came after Garza retired a red-hot Miguel Cabrera for the first out of the inning. Aubrey Huff and Carlos Guillen drew back-to-back walks before Inge's single loaded the bases. Laird's blooper went past the diving right fielder Gabe Gross, and Everett's ball headed down the left-field line and into the corner.
"I thought Garza walking Huffy and Guillen were probably the two biggest plays of the night," Maddon said, "because [Garza] had good stuff."
Five of Detroit's first six hits came from the bottom third of the lineup, including Laird's second multi-hit game since the All-Star break, on a night when Cabrera went hitless.
"He's been doing a heckuva job pretty much carrying us in the middle there," Leyland said. "But if we're going to win, we have to get those contributions from everybody."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.