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Alex Speier

Pitching coach knew not to give up on Rick Porcello

Willis had seen similar struggles

Rick Porcello struck out 13 on Tuesday vs. the Yankees.Associated Press

This isn’t the first time that Carl Willis has seen something like the 2015 season of Rick Porcello.

As pitching coach of the Indians in 2005, Willis worked with a 25-year-old lefthander in a breakout year (18-5, 3.79), which was followed up by a solid but less spectacular campaign in 2006 (14-11, 4.40).

Then, in 2007, Cliff Lee lost it. A 5-8 record and 6.29 ERA resulted in a demotion to the minors. Lee was left to watch as a spectator rather than a participant while the Indians played the Red Sox in the ALCS that year.

His talent wasn’t gone. The next year, Lee commenced a six-year run as one of the best pitchers in the game with a 22-3 record and 2.54 ERA that netted him the Cy Young Award.

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What on earth happened?

“I think the biggest thing with the Cliff Lee situation in 2007 going into 2008 is in 2007, Cliff kind of lost his strength,” explained Willis. “His strength had always been glove-side command of his fastball. He pitched in to righthanders really well. In 2007, he really lost the ability to get it in there. He continued to try to, but he would leave it a little bit out over the plate.

“As opposed to trying to add a pitch or do something different, we worked extremely hard on getting that strength back. Once he did, things just kind of took off for him. There were a couple other things he added, but that was the foundation of it. I think it’s similar [to Porcello now]. We’re trying to get Rick’s strength back – sinking the baseball, commanding the fastball, using the curveball along with it. We’ve seen that in the last two outings.”

Indeed, the fact that Porcello punched out a career-high 13 batters in eight innings of work in a 3-1 loss to the Yankees on Tuesday – and now has allowed one earned run in his last 15 innings with 18 strikeouts and one walk – suggests that the 26-year-old’s stuff hasn’t gone anywhere. His struggles have been a matter of sequencing and execution.

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According to Willis, the rediscovery of Porcello’s ideal arm slot and release point on his two-seam fastball has allowed him to reclaim success while working primarily with the pitch that had been his bread-and-butter throughout his career.

The nine looking strikeouts by the Yankees indicated the tremendous movement on Porcello’s sinker on Tuesday. His usage of that pitch as his primary weapon then opened up the rest of the plate for attack – 94 m.p.h. fastballs up in the zone, changeups that darted down and away from a Yankees lineup featuring eight lefties, and a curveball with impressive break.

It didn’t erase the weight of the year, but Porcello is showing the tools that can make him very effective. In that sense, Porcello harbors some resemblance to another young Red Sox pitcher who struggled in his transition to Boston in a fashion that was confounding given his raw ability.

Like Porcello, Josh Beckett arrived in Boston in 2006 as a 26-year-old with a track record of unusual early career success, received an extension early in the year, then struggled badly (5.01 ERA in 2006).

But as with Porcello, the stuff hadn’t gone anywhere. The needed tweaks were in approach and mentality, spending less time trying to beat AL East opponents with four-seamers up in the zone and instead incorporating a more complete arsenal. The next year, Beckett went 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA and anchored a championship pitching staff.

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That’s not to say that Porcello will follow the path of Lee or Beckett to emerge on the short list for the Cy Young Award next year. But as much as his first year in Boston is – not unreasonably – viewed as a failure to live up to expectations – his 5.21 ERA, after all, is still the eighth-worst in the majors among 116 pitchers who have worked at least 100 innings – there’s still possibility in front of him.

“No doubt about it,” said Willis. “He had such good angle, such good action. He goes out and gives us outings like that, he’s going to win us a lot of baseball games.”

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