TORONTO — Rick Porcello would be lying if he said he didn’t think about it.
Maybe it happened while he loosened up in the bullpen before the game. Or maybe it was when he walked off the mound after the seventh inning, his milestone 20th victory so close he could almost hear his phone pinging with congratulatory messages.
But a pitcher doesn’t return to the scene of one of his worst starts, a performance so atrocious that 437 days later Porcello still says he “felt like I wasn’t ever going to get anybody out ever again,” without having a few flashbacks.
And that’s perfectly OK. Porcello deserved to take a beat Friday night before he beat the Toronto Blue Jays 13-3 in the opener of a three-game showdown for first place in the AL East. It was July 1, 2015, when the Jays punctuated Canada Day by lighting him up like a firecracker for seven runs on seven hits, including three home runs, in the low point of his miserable first season with the Boston Red Sox.
If nothing else, the memory of that day served to reinforce how far Porcello has come.
Raise your hand if you predicted Porcello — not Clayton Kershaw, not Max Scherzer, not even Red Sox teammate David Price — would be the first 20-game winner in the majors this season. But here was Porcello, mowing down Toronto tormentors Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to become the 28th pitcher in Sox history to win 20 games and the first since Josh Beckett in 2007.
“It’s great,” said AL MVP candidate Mookie Betts, who went 2-for-6 with a double to help fuel an 18-hit barrage and give the division-leading Sox a two-game lead over the Jays. “It just shows how much work he’s put in going from last year to this year. It just shows who he really is. I think this is just typical Rick.”
Oh, but Porcello has been anything but typical. He might not win the Cy Young Award, but to those voters who point to the Red Sox scoring an average of more than seven runs in his starts as the primary reason for all those wins, consider this: Porcello has pitched seven innings or more and allowed three runs or less in nine consecutive starts, the longest such streak in the majors this season. In 29 starts overall, he has a 3.21 ERA, ninth in the American League.
Typical Rick doesn’t overpower hitters with a fastball that sits in the low-90s. Rick the Rock merely bends without breaking, as he did in the third inning Friday night when he gave up two runs before recording an out but avoided further trouble by striking out Donaldson and using his signature sinker to get Encarnacion to roll into a double play.
“That inning was the inning for me to limit the damage there,” Porcello said.
Last season, Porcello would’ve doused that fire with gasoline. Big innings were the norm, especially after the Red Sox had scored a few runs or taken a lead. Pitching with the weight of a four-year, $82.5 million contract extension on his right arm, Porcello rarely appeared self-assured and went 9-15 with a 4.92 ERA in 28 starts. He even spent a month on the disabled list with what the Red Sox termed a right-triceps strain that also was an opportunity for him to clear his head.
Resultswise, it wasn’t unlike Beckett’s first season with the Red Sox. The turnaround has been similar too. In 2006, Beckett posted a 5.01 ERA that was well above his 3.88 career mark. A year later, having learned how to deal with the expectations of Boston, Beckett went 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA and finished second to CC Sabathia in the AL Cy Young voting.
“Rick is probably more of a four-pitch pitcher where Josh was primarily fastball, curveball and changeup. [Porcello] might not have the power that Beckett did,” said manager John Farrell, who was Beckett’s pitching coach in 2007. “But still, when you’re talking about sending a guy to the mound that’s going to go deep in ballgames, the similarity is the wins, obviously.”
Said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski: “He’s always been a good and successful pitcher by throwing his sinker primarily. But I think he’s really improved as an overall pitcher, just the ability to change speeds with his changeup, his curveball. He’s really got a better pulse of changing the eyesight on various pitches. You see the growth.”
Dombrowski would know. He ran the Tigers’ baseball ops department when Detroit drafted Porcello in 2007 and made the decision to trade him to the Red Sox before last season.
For years, Porcello pitched in Detroit rotations that were led by aces Justin Verlander and Scherzer. But each of those aces have only won at least 20 games once.
Now, Porcello has too.
“It’s definitely a huge honor,” Porcello said. “It’s hard to win one game in the big leagues let alone 20. I’m very proud of that.”
As he should be. Maybe now, his memory of 437 days ago can officially be erased.