BALTIMORE — As a 20-year-old rookie with the Detroit Tigers, Rick Porcello admired Justin Verlander‘s blazing fastball. A year later, in 2010, Max Scherzer brought his high heat and wipeout slider to town. And four years after that, they were joined by David Price.
Indeed, Porcello grew up in the big leagues surrounded by aces.
But it didn’t take him long to recognize it was more than exceptional talent that made Verlander, Scherzer and Price elite. They had the same attitude. They weren’t aces so much as alpha pitchers. They knew they were better than you, and they let you know it, not by anything they said but simply by the way they comported themselves.
“That’s something that players notice,” Porcello said Monday night from a nearly empty visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards. “You can call it swagger or confidence, whatever you want to call it. Watching those guys, they definitely had that.”
Let it be said, now and forever, that Porcello has it too.
This isn’t merely a reaction to the right-hander’s latest gem — an 89-pitch, complete-game dismantling of the power-packed Orioles in a 5-2 victory which pushed the Boston Red Sox’s lead in the American League East to four games with only 12 to play — or the fact that he seemed willing to take on the entire population of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor after Manny Machado objected to being hit by a pitch in the bottom of the fourth inning.
No, you don’t suddenly develop swagger. Porcello has had it all along, even last season when he went 9-15 with a 4.92 ERA in his first season in Boston and was held up with high-priced additions Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval as everything that was wrong with the Red Sox.
“I don’t ever want [opponents] to look at me as some quiet, timid guy on the mound. I want them to know that I’m confident,” Porcello said. “[But] when you’re going out there and getting your brains beat in every fifth day, you don’t really have a lot to stand on right there. When you’re in a different position, you’re more apt to maybe express yourself a little bit more.”
Like, say, when you’re 21-4 with a 3.08 ERA and a legitimate candidate for the AL Cy Young Award and your division rival’s star third baseman takes umbrage with a pitch that tailed a little too far inside?
As it turned out, the Machado affair was much ado about nothing. When Machado griped and plate umpire Tim Timmons hastily issued warnings to both dugouts, any amateur lip-reader could tell Porcello shouted, “I’m not trying to f—ing hit you, bro.” Not only was 43-homer slugger Mark Trumbo on deck with the Red Sox holding a 2-0 lead, but Porcello also had not yet allowed a baserunner, retiring the first 11 batters.
Machado admitted after the game that he understood Porcello “doesn’t want to hit me in that situation.” Consider, then, his reaction to be purely visceral, an in-the-heat-of-the-moment kind of thing.
But it wasn’t the first time this season Porcello has gotten into it with an opposing player. Last month, he barked at New York Yankees third baseman Chase Headley, who had just been thrown out at third base. Although Porcello declined to specify why he took issue with Headley, New York manager Joe Girardi thought Porcello believed the Yankees were trying to steal signs.
“When you’re in a position that we are right now — we’re playing meaningful baseball and it’s a pretty tight race up to this point — you can’t help but get a little more emotional,” Porcello said. “As much as I respect anybody that I’m playing against in the league, I’m not going to stand there and have somebody yell at me and not say something back.”
So, Porcello walks the walk, stands up for his team, sets the tone. He insists he doesn’t consider himself an ace, but there’s no denying he’s the alpha pitcher the Red Sox always believed him to be when they traded for him in December 2014.
“I don’t know that we necessarily focused in on that, but he always had great makeup,” general manager Mike Hazen said. “I would say in the two years that he’s been here, it’s pretty evident that between he and [Price], they’re running the show on the pitching staff every single day. He doesn’t say very much outwardly, but obviously the presence, you hear and you know who’s in control.”
Porcello was in complete control against the Orioles. He threw only eight pitches in the first inning, seven in the second and seven in the third. And after breaking a slight sweat in the middle three innings — he threw 14, 12 and 14 pitches — he retired nine of the final 10 batters on only 27 pitches.
It marked the majors’ first sub-90-pitch, nine-inning complete game since Jeff Samardzija on Sept. 21, 2015, and only the third ever thrown by a Red Sox pitcher, joining Aaron Cook on June 29, 2012, against Seattle, and Roger Clemens on Sept. 10, 1988, against Cleveland.
“It’s awesome,” Price said. “Porce, man, he brings that fire every time he pitches. That works for him, and it’s good to see that he’s doing that. He doesn’t cross any lines. I think hitters understand that. He wants you to get in the box and let’s play baseball, and that’s it. He uses his energy and that chip on his shoulder in the right way.”
All the alpha pitchers do.