St. Petersburg, Fla. — When he isn’t throwing a baseball, Rick Porcello specializes in another bit of motor-skill artistry. He ties glorious trout flies.
It seemed Wednesday night at Tropicana Field as if he was blending a bit of both crafts as he wove nine innings of brilliantly threaded pitches that became a shutout and a 6-0 victory for the Tigers over the Rays.
“There’s a stage in most good pitchers’ careers when they turn a corner,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, whose team has taken the first two games of a dangerous three-game set against the Rays. “I think that might be the case with Rick.
“Even when I was in San Diego,” Ausmus said, speaking of the Padres, for whom he worked before moving to Detroit as manager, “he was a young guy who was coveted there.”
Porcello, of course, might still have been pitching had Tigers bats not pitched in, which they did, especially in the case of Victor Martinez.
Martinez drove a double down the first-base line that sent a sprinting Miguel Cabrera home with the Tigers’ first run. Then, in the seventh, after the Tigers scored again on a two-out double by Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler’s fisted single to left-center, the Tigers put together a — news bulletin — big inning.
They loaded the bases following Kinsler’s single, thanks to Torii Hunter’s single and a walk to Cabrera. Stepping toward the plate, in that tribal chief gait of his, Victor Martinez meditated on pitcher Kirby Yates.
On a 1-and-2 count, Yates tossed a fastball that Martinez hit so far, and so high to right field, it nearly cleared the bleachers and landed on the perimeter concourse.
“Not many people can protect Miggy,” Ausmus said, speaking of Martinez and his role as the order’s clean-up sentry. “But Victor’s that guy.”
The home run was Martinez’s 24th of the season, one short of his career high for a single year, while the five RBIs gave him 79.
Rays batters, meanwhile, were having a different set of interactions with Porcello. They liked nothing about his approach as he spun a three-hit jewel, which featured three hits, four strikeouts, and, of course, not a single walk on a night his 104 pitches consisted of 76 strikes and 28 balls – slightly more than three pitches per inning that missed the strike zone.
At one point during a six-batter stretch from the fourth through fifth innings, Porcello struck out four batters, all on called strikes, and all on fastballs.
“Yeah, I had a couple guys set up where I could throw that swing-back (fastball) to the glove side of the plate,” said Porcello, who had a stunning string of 20 consecutive batters retired.
“There are times when you try and execute that pitch and miss, and then, if you throw it again, guys are all over it.”
They mostly mashed into Tropicana’s turf Porcello’s serves, or they popped them up. Their only hits: a first-inning double by Ben Zobrist, a single in the eighth by James Loney, and Desmond Jennings’ single in the ninth.
Porcello had not enjoyed life in his last start, when the Mariners popped him last weekend at Comerica Park. But he slowed down his tempo Wednesday, he said, allowing his arm to catch up with his body.
That body, it might be remembered, is all of 25 years old. Porcello is now 14-8 on the season, and has won 75 games in his six seasons with the Tigers.
The numbers include what might be the single most impressive statistic featured by a Tigers pitcher in 2014: three complete games and three shutouts.
“It’s just the way it’s happening this year,” he said, which is about as much as Porcello will ever blow his personal trumpet.
He is, after all, more interested in tying flies, if anything takes him away from that ever-improving day job.