It was his sinking two-seam fastball that convinced the Red Sox to trade for Rick Porcello last December and then sign him to a four-year contract extension before he made even one start.
That’s how sure the Red Sox were about him. They viewed Porcello as an established starter with his best years still to come.
That Porcello regressed is part of the reason general manager Ben Cherington was pushed out the door. Porcello was an example of his failed vision.
Only maybe Cherington was right on this one.
Porcello dominated the New York Yankees on Tuesday night, striking out a career-best 13 over eight innings. That the Red Sox lost, 3-1, was almost incidental to seeing Porcello stack up outs against a team with a high-powered offense.
The 13 strikeouts were the most by a Red Sox pitcher since Jon Lester had 15 against the Oakland Athletics on May 5, 2013 and the most by a Sox pitcher against the Yankees at Fenway Park since Pedro Martinez struck out 12 on May 30, 2001.
Nine of the strikeouts were called, Porcello spotting his fastball on both sides of the plate. He threw 76 of his 109 pitches for strikes.
“This year it was definitely the best, most consistent stuff that I’ve had,” he said.
In two games since coming off the disabled list, Porcello has allowed one earned run over 15 innings and struck out 18 with one walk.
“He’s hitting spots with a little bit of movement and deception,” interim manager Torey Lovullo said.
Porcello’s recovery, though only two games long, is significant because he has returned to featuring his sinker instead of trying to beat hitters with a four-seam fastball, changeups, and breaking balls.
Now Porcello is hammering the sinker and picking his spots with the other pitches.
“I basically forced myself to throw it. That was the commitment after I came off the DL, I’m going to throw my sinker and find it,” he said. “If I get beat [with] that pitch, then so what? In order for me to have some success here over the long run, I’ve got to find that pitch.”
Porcello had a 5.81 earned run average when the Red Sox placed him on the disabled list with a triceps strain. The four-week break, which included two strong minor-league starts, served as a reset.
“I kind of had a talk with myself. Stop screwing around with the four-seamer and getting back to doing what I’ve had success doing,” he said.
Porcello cruised through the first four innings. He gave up two singles and struck out seven.
Fenway’s favorite villain, Alex Rodriguez, singled to left field to lead off the fifth inning. Porcello struck out Chase Headley and Greg Bird. Didi Gregorius chopped a ball down the first-base line that banged off the glove of rookie Travis Shaw and rolled into foul territory.
Shaw’s first career error put runners on second and third. Stephen Drew lined a high fastball into the gap in left field for a two-run double.
Porcello was strong in the eighth inning, striking out Drew and Jacoby Ellsbury. But Brett Gardner snuck a home run around the Pesky Pole in right field.
The Red Sox, down by two runs in the eighth inning and facing All-Star set-up man Dellin Betances, got singles from Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts.
David Ortiz came to the plate and the crowd of 35,077 stirred.
With the count 1 and 1, Betances threw a curveball to Ortiz. He swung and missed and the Red Sox tried a double steal.
Betts was thrown out at third base by catcher Brian McCann, umpire Vic Carapazza making the call after Betts appeared to beat the throw. Betts contended Headley pushed him off the bag.
“I felt like I was safe the whole time. As I was sitting there I felt, obviously, my foot started moving and I wasn’t moving it,” Betts said. “So I felt like when he rolled over, he was pushing me off the bag. Whether it was intentional or unintentional, I felt like I was pushed.”
Said Headley: “I saw him come off the bag. There was space there and I had the tag on him the whole time. I knew once they went to the review that it was going to stay.
“It’s a big play. Obviously David knows how to drive guys in and you’ve got the tying run in scoring position.”
Whether a runner is forced off the bag cannot be reviewed. But Lovullo challenged the out call and it stood.
“The replay official maintained that he lost contact with the bag without being forced off,” Lovullo said.
Ortiz then struck out for the fourth time, his quest for 500 career home runs stalled for a night.
A bigger question was why the Red Sox tried a double steal with Ortiz up. He had homered in three of the previous four games.
“With David up, we knew the pitcher was going to be locked on into executing a game plan, getting in a rhythm at home plate,” Lovullo said. “At that point we figured it was a good risk.”
The ninth inning was far less dramatic as Andrew Miller finished off the Red Sox for his 29th save, striking out three and hitting a batter. Michael Pineda went six innings for the win.
The Sox were held to eight hits, two of them doubles by Jackie Bradley Jr. He is 6 of 7 with four doubles in his last three games and 28 of his last 64 with 19 extra-base hits. Bradley is hitting .287 on the season.