Eight was Rick Porcello’s lucky number Tuesday night.
The Red Sox starter worked an 8-pitch, 8-strike, 1-2-3 first inning, the amuse-bouche to eight shutout innings in a 5-1 Red Sox win at home against Oakland. Porcello threw 114 pitches, 78 of them strikes, and gave up only two hits and two walks with eight strikeouts, slicing nearly two points off his ERA in a dominant start.
“Yeah, I don’t think there’s any shock to that,” Porcello said, agreeing that he’d given his best effort of the season. “I haven’t pitched the way I’ve wanted to up to this point.”
After three bad losses to start the season, Porcello has won his last two starts. The Red Sox as a team have won his last three.
The turnaround has been the result of work — Porcello said there was one week where he threw a bullpen session every day between starts — and, on Tuesday, using his best pitches effectively.
Porcello (2-3, 5.52 ERA) threw 41 sliders, a season high and the second-highest total of his career. He didn’t use the pitch much in his first four starts, but went to it more the last two. He’s also adjusted his ratio of two-seam fastballs to four-seam fastballs in favor of the two-seamer. On Tuesday, Porcello threw 39 two-seamers and 23 four-seamers.
“It’s his number one weapon,” said pitching coach Dana LeVangie. “We all know Rick can elevate a fastball anytime he wants, but what makes it better is using the sinker at the bottom of the zone first, then when he raises their sights it makes the four-seamer even better. So, the sinker is really important.”
The slider was working too, so Sandy Leon kept asking for it.
“It was good, it was short, it was sharp,” Leon said. “Early in the count he threw it for strikes, with two strikes he was expanding the zone, so it was really good.”
And if the two-seamer is most important to Porcello, the slider was a powerful compliment.
“It’s always his second-best weapon. Fastball is his number one priority, but the way his slider/cutter was working on both sides of the plate — using it into the righties, backdoor lefties — just made his fastball so much better, sinker [and] four-seamer,” LeVangie said. “Pitched really aggressively tonight.”
Part of that aggression was a quick tempo between Porcello and Leon. Their speed, and the speed at which Porcello was getting outs, meant the offense wasn’t waiting long to get back to the dugout.
Only 13 minutes after Porcello threw the first pitch, Mookie Betts crushed a ball through the wind to the third row of the center-field bleachers to put the Red Sox up 1-0.
Michael Chavis blooped a single in the second inning and scored on an RBI single by Sandy Leon. Chavis scored again in the fourth when Mitch Moreland hit a 2-run home run to center. That homer ended an 0-for-15 streak for Moreland.
“They can’t shift that one,” he said.
The Red Sox (13-17) added one last unearned run in the fifth. J.D. Martinez hit a ball to the warning track that Oakland center fielder Ramon Laureano dropped, putting the Sox slugger on second. Rafael Devers doubled down the right-field line to send Martinez home and end the night for Oakland starter Aaron Brooks (2-3).
In for the ninth, Tyler Thornburg gave up a solo home run to Robbie Grossman, who’d hit a ball deep to center in the first inning, but had it die in the chilly air.
It spoiled the shutout and made for an imperfect ending, but that blip was not going to override the positive energy from Porcello’s start. Porcello was energized late in the game — he tipped his cap to shortstop Xander Bogaerts in the eighth after Bogaerts reacted quickly and made a good play to deny Nick Hundley a hit. When that inning ended and he went back to the dugout, he and manager Alex Cora shared a big hug.
Porcello talked about the good team win and how defense helped him out, seemingly careful not to get too high after one start. But for a pitcher whose struggles were near the top of the Red Sox list of problems, this kind of outing has to be meaningful.
“It’s not the first time I’ve been roughed up before. Won’t be the last,” Porcello said. “You’ve got to be professional about it and you’ve got to have that inner confidence that you’re going to find your stuff.”