February 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tigers 5, Braves 2

Tigers' Rick Porcello has drive, pitches to take big step this season

Lakeland, Fla. — He graduated to major league baseball out of high school.

But continued as a student all the same.

As Rick Porcello prepares for this season, his sixth with the Tigers, he’s a 25-year-old still learning his craft.

Studying to get better.

“I don’t really want to look at that video,” he said with a smile when asked how much different of a pitcher he is now, in terms of repertoire, than he was earlier in his career, such as his second season.

“There were a lot of growing pains. But I’m getting a better handle on what pitches I need to throw to be successful and help us win.”

Porcello never has been anyone’s concept of a crazy kid, unless maybe if he stayed up past his bedtime when he was 10.

But his collection of pitches lacked the depth that often only develops with a pitcher’s maturity.

Then along came his curveball.

And the Porcello who now talks at his locker — as he did after working two innings of the Tigers’ 5-2 victory over the Braves on Thursday — isn’t a pitcher groping to be good.

He’s a pitcher expecting to be good.

It’s time for him to take a big step, though.

He’s beyond the comparisons of what year in college this would be for him had he not signed out of high school.

Those days are gone. He’d be out in the world by now even if he hadn’t been pitching major league ball by the time he was 20.

But along the lines — the timeline, if you will — it takes a certain number of years for a quarterback to fully blossom, Porcello might be ready to bloom as well.

Some of what he said after his spring debut was obligatory: First outing. Just trying to throw strikes.

If you’ve heard it once from an endless parade of pitchers through the years, you’ve heard it hundreds of times.

But, Porcello quickly opened a window to the world of how greater success might be achieved.

“Last year, I felt my curveball was a big pitch,” he said. “And I want to get it going early.”

There you have it.

Porcello never spoke of his slider with such eagerness.

And it’s not that he’s hitching his wagon entirely to the new star that his breaking ball might become.

But there’s no reason now the full array of what Porcello throws shouldn’t mesh in unprecedented ways.

After all, he throws harder than he used to. He’s stronger than the youngster he was.

Not only that, he has started 149 games. He’s not wide-eyed, possibly never was.

He qualifies as young Rick, but veteran Rick at the same time.

With a deep drive to excel.

“You guys saw me throw three years ago, and you see me throw now,” he said. “I feel I’m throwing my breaking ball a lot better and more consistently than in the past.

“The curve felt pretty good. It’s not quite as sharp as I’d like it to be, but it was the first time out. So it’s something to keep working toward.”

If any pitch is about to lift Porcello to the next level, the curve just might be it.

“Throwing my curve and sticking to it as my main breaking pitch was a decision we made last year,” he said. “It’s the pitch I saw some really good results from — and feel a lot more confident in.

“Now is the time to get better with it and really use it as a weapon.”

It was with his curve Porcello struck out the first of three batters in a row — looking, swinging, looking — in the second inning Thursday.

“Curve to the lefty, change-up to the righty, fastball to the lefty,” Porcello said.

That’s how his opening outing ended, his breaking ball already looking sharp.

“I feel pretty comfortable with it,” he said. “The main thing to do with that pitch is to drop it in for strikes, then throw it out of the strike zone later in the count.

“I was able to do that.”

And that alone made his first start a good start.

tom.gage@detroitnews.com
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Rick Porcello delivers a change-up during the second inning on Thursday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News