Rookie Porcello set for daunting task
Tigers hurler to start tiebreaker in front of hostile crowd
DETROIT -- Sometime after Rick Porcello finished with his last outing Monday afternoon against the Twins, when the 20-year-old rookie was back in the clubhouse, it hit him that he might've just thrown his final pitch of the season.
It wasn't a long thought. He didn't want to ponder it.
Now, he has some more work to do, and it'll be on the biggest stage of his brief career, not to mention the loudest.
"I'm sure he's pitched in a tough environment," manager Jim Leyland said, "but I doubt that 50 scouts down the right-field line freezing their tails off in New Jersey somewhere is going to be like this."
Try 50,000 Twins fans shouting their loudest, their voices echoing all over the Metrodome.
Technically, it's Game 163 of the Tigers' regular season, but Tuesday's American League Central tiebreaker between the Tigers and Twins will be unlike any of Porcello's previous 30 starts this season. He has pitched in high-pressure situations like Fenway Park on a summer night, Busch Stadium in a big Interleague Play matchup, and the Metrodome a few weeks ago to start Detroit's key three-game series there. Still, the last time Porcello pitched in a true win-or-go-home situation was likely high school.
His poise in all the situations he has faced to date, however, gives reason to believe that he can handle this one. He has long since proven that he's more mature than an average 20-year-old, and the fact that Leyland let him throw 111 pitches in his last start challenges the notion that he's a rookie anymore.
His teammates don't seem to see him like one.
"I think he's surprised a lot of people all year," said Justin Verlander, who essentially pitched the Tigers into this situation Sunday with his 7 2/3 innings to beat the White Sox. "He's got one more chance to do the same. I really think he can draw from what he did last start.
"In my opinion, he's going to have the same amount of pressure on this start that he did last one. Not knowing what was to come, he had a ton of pressure on him his last start and was able to handle it very well. Like I've said all year, he's so mature for his age, he's unbelievable. He's confident in himself. He'll be able to draw off that, go in and do a good job for us."
Catcher Gerald Laird, who has worked with Porcello all season to hone his sinkerball arsenal and mix it with a fastball, has seen the growth.
"He's grown all year," Laird said. "From start to start, from month to month, he's gotten a lot better. He's learned how to pitch and not be a power guy."
Porcello has had two quality starts in as many tries against the Twins over the past 2 1/2 weeks, but he received two runs of offensive support in those two games combined. His six innings with three runs allowed kept the Tigers close on Sept. 18 at the Metrodome, but a hanging sinker over the plate to Michael Cuddyer ended up heading out to left field for a two-run homer. Detroit went scoreless that night.
Denard Span's fifth-inning sacrifice fly was all the scoring the Twins managed off Porcello on Tuesday at Comerica Park. He fell behind hitters more often, but battled his way back, scattering six hits with a run and a strikeout.
The Twins showed in both starts that they can put the ball in play off him, but Porcello showed he can get them to hit his sinker for outs. Now that he's back on the fast turf of the dome, that plan won't change.
"That's my game plan from the get-go," Porcello said. "I'm trying to get ground balls."
The fact that he'll now be throwing more pitches than might've been in the plan when the season started shouldn't make a difference. Porcello said late last week that he feels strong, surprisingly so for the tail end of a full season, and credits the work the Tigers have put in to hold down his workload.
Those stats show in his late-season roll. Porcello is 5-2 since the start of August with a 3.19 ERA and a .244 batting average allowed.
Now, he'll be throwing the Tigers' biggest pitches of the season.
"I expect a big game from him," Laird said. "He's got the makeup of a big-game pitcher."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.