CLEVELAND — For six seasons and four postseasons with the Detroit Tigers, Rick Porcello watched teammates Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer start the openers of playoff series. The biggest lesson: Stay with your routine and keep things as normal as possible, even with all the distractions swirling around you.
So, in the days leading up to his Game 1 American League Division Series start for the Boston Red Sox on Thursday night, Porcello tried to keep everything the same. He threw his normal bullpen session, went through his typically thorough study sessions of the opposing hitters, even wore the same lucky sweat-stained cap he has donned throughout the best season of his life.
And then, when it came time to face the Cleveland Indians, he laid an egg.
Porcello left pitches up in the strike zone that have been down all season. He lasted 4⅓ innings, his shortest outing since July 29, 2015. He gave up three home runs, more than he allowed in any start since Aug. 3 at Seattle, and although they were all solo shots, the fact that they were bunched together in a four-batter span of the third inning whipped a raucous crowd into a frenzy and blunted any momentum the Red Sox could generate.
“That’s never how you want to start a playoff series off,” Porcello said after a taut 5-4 loss. “I’ll go back and look at it, kind of recap what happened and what the situations were and why that happened and come up with a better game plan.”
It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Porcello, in the midst of a dream season in which he went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA and took the lead in the race for the AL Cy Young Award, was supposed to carve up the Indians’ lineup. In every way possible, his matchup with Cleveland’s default Game 1 starter Trevor Bauer should have been a mismatch.
But Bauer actually recorded one more out than Porcello. And because the Indians carried a 5-3 lead through five innings, they were able to unleash their greatest strength: a shutdown bullpen. Between them, high-leverage specialist Andrew Miller and closer Cody Allen threw 80 pitches (40 apiece) and recorded 11 outs.
This whole thing could have been easier if only the Red Sox hadn’t lost six of their past seven games and squandered home-field advantage in the division series. They responded by drawing confidence from how well they played on the road after the All-Star break, when they pulled away from the pack to win the AL East.
But the littlest things can turn a short series. The team that wins Game 1 has gone on to win 84 of 120 best-of-5 series in baseball history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. So, it helps to play in front of a friendly crowd in a ballpark as friendly as Fenway, where Porcello went 13-1 in 16 starts.
Still, everything was lined up for the Red Sox to take Game 1, beginning with their starter.
“It happens, man. He ain’t perfect,” David Ortiz said. “He’s a human being just like everyone else. He left a couple pitches on the plate, and unfortunately that’s what happened. But he’s human.”
Indians catcher Roberto Perez, a .183 hitter during the season, belted a full-count fastball that caught too much plate because Porcello didn’t want to walk him, an acceptable situation except for what occurred next. Two batters later, he elevated a sinker to Jason Kipnis for another home run. He tried a changeup to Francisco Lindor, but that went out of the ballpark, too.
“I’ve thrown that pitch a lot this year. Haven’t really got hurt by it,” Porcello said. “Got hurt by it there. You can spin it however you want to spin it. I threw the pitches that I thought were going to be the best pitches to throw, and they hit three balls out of the ballpark.
“Hopefully we win the next three games, but if I get an opportunity in the fifth game, I’ll rectify the mistakes I made.”
Porcello knows there are no guarantees, though. That’s the cruel reality of a short series. The Red Sox have to win two of the next three games just to push the Indians to the limit.
It starts in Game 2 with David Price, who has had his own problems in the postseason. If you haven’t heard about his 0-7 record and 5.28 ERA in eight career playoff starts, you will between now and 4:30 p.m. Friday when he’s loosening in the bullpen at Progressive Field.
The Red Sox won 93 games and a division title, so they don’t lack for confidence. But there’s no denying Porcello let some air out of the balloon.
“We’re the Red Sox. Confidence, that’s the last thing we’ve lost,” first baseman Hanley Ramirez said. “We’re going to come back tomorrow and give it everything we’ve got, keep fighting, keep competing as a team, and we cannot get down 0-2.”
Said Ortiz: “Hey, listen, this is not over yet. We’ve got plenty of games to play. I’m going to bring my best tomorrow. That’s how I am. And I’m pretty sure my teammates will, too.”
Porcello has no choice now but to bet on them.