April 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Rick Porcello's impact growing on Tigers' starry staff

Ausmus, Porcello on win over Angels
Ausmus, Porcello on win over Angels: Manager Brad Ausmus on errors and closers; pitcher Rick Porcello on the changes a year makes.

Detroit — In some ways, he’s as grizzled as a 25-year-old guy can be. Rick Porcello has been around for good times, bad times, big times and small times. Half of being a pitcher is finding your way to the mound, and the other half is staying there.

His role hasn’t really changed but his importance has — and his impact could grow. Porcello shut down the Angels, 2-1, on Sunday to take the series and give the Tigers a boost during these wobbly first weeks. On a day when perennial MVP candidates Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout did more flailing, the Tigers went back to work with a workhorse.

Porcello doesn’t get the attention of the starry starters, but he can provide something nearly as valuable. If he shows up every five days like he did in this one, the Tigers won’t have to spend as much time fretting about the shortstop position, or the bullpen, or the offense. Porcello allowed five hits in seven innings, and if he can be this good following Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez in the rotation, look out.

“Obviously they’ve got the hardware, but you need five starters to get through a season,” Porcello said. “We’re a team here, and I don’t think anybody says the stars need to carry us. We all have a job to do.”

Since arriving in the majors as a 20-year-old in 2009, Porcello has done very well at times, not so well at times. With his talent, smarts and cool demeanor, he always has given the Tigers reason to believe he can do more, when necessity calls.

Confronting demons

Necessity might knock now. When Dave Dombrowski made the controversial trade of Doug Fister during the offseason, he essentially chose Porcello over Fister, a 30-year-old stalwart. It seemed like a crazy move, dealing an accomplished starter for two young pitchers and utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi, since traded again. But sometimes a gamble isn’t only about who you’re dealing away, but who you already have.

The spoken motive was, Dombrowski wanted to get lefty Drew Smyly in the rotation. The unspoken motive was, the Tigers like the sturdiness and youth of Porcello, and expect a solid reward for their patience. Remember, they believed in him enough to start him in Game 163 against the Twins in 2009. He’s 63-51 with a 4.50 ERA in five-plus seasons, and has pitched in eight postseason games.

“He’s a young guy, but he’s not an inexperienced guy,” Brad Ausmus said. “He doesn’t get rattled. He has a game plan out there. He’s not just throwing rocks, he’s pitching.”

That plan must continue, from throwing rocks to throwing sinkers that stay down, forcing hitters to slap grounders. Porcello was brilliant his first start this season, surrendering one run and three hits in seven innings against the Orioles. He was knocked around his second start, giving up 10 hits and five runs against the Padres.

In this outing, he showed it’s best to confront your demons, even when they’re disguised as Angels. Exactly one year ago to the day, Porcello hurled one of the most-bizarre first innings imaginable. Facing the Angels in Anaheim, he gave up nine runs on nine hits in two-thirds of an inning, capped by a Trout grand slam.

There were infield dribblers and grounders that slipped through holes, but the boxscore spoke louder than the reality. The next time Porcello faced the Angels, he gave up 10 hits and seven runs. He finished 13-8 with a 4.32 ERA last season, but if you surgically remove those two starts, the ERA drops to 3.61.

This time, he kept his sinker sinking, and if it was sweeter because of the previous pummeling, he wasn’t saying.

“No, I completely forgot about that one,” he said, laughing. “I think I’m a different pitcher now than when they got to me. I mean, it’s nine runs in one inning, one of those days you don’t even (care to) remember. I know I’m better than that.”

Porcello mixes his four pitches better now instead of, in his words, “just feeding them fastballs.” And even at his relatively tender age, there isn’t much he hasn’t seen.

Win-loss consistency

Catcher Alex Avila has been witness to the evolution. Porcello has had to mature by fire, topping 160 innings in each of his five seasons, and has been remarkably consistent in an inconsistent way, with two 14-9 seasons and two 10-12 seasons.

“He’s had stretches where he’s pitching really well and you think, he’s there, he’s there,” Avila said. “Then he’d have a game where he’s good for four or five innings, then gets a little wild. Very few guys just get it right from the beginning.”

Porcello could’ve stayed in the minors five years ago, tearing through weak hitters, but the Tigers needed him and he delivered. He became only the fourth major leaguer in the past 40 years to win 14 or more games at the age of 20 or younger.

It was taxing but he wouldn’t trade it for anything — not even for the permanent erasure of one painful nine-run inning.

“I think being in the big leagues at a young age and learning the game up here has helped,” Porcello said. “It’s tough, because these guys are good. But I’ve acquired knowledge I don’t think I would’ve been able to acquire at lower levels.”

From untapped potential to newly tapped experience, Porcello has made a steady climb. If he’s ready for a larger leap, the Tigers will gladly take it, and might even need it.


Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones congratulates pitcher Rick Porcello, left, with manager Brad Ausmus, right, after the top of the seventh inning Sunday at Comerica Park. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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