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Porcello hurls seven scoreless against Rays

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays held a throwback night to 1979, nearly a decade before Rick Porcello was born. Porcello threw back to his May 2011 outing, the last time he looked this good on the mound.

It was a changeup for the Rays. Actually, Porcello had a lot of changeups for them. But to him, his seven scoreless innings while throwing 87 pitches should be more of the expected, to some extent. In Saturday's case, it was the difference in the Tigers' 6-2 win at Tropicana Field.

"I mean, I think being a contact pitcher and throwing strikes and keeping the ball down in the zone, I should be able to have these types of outings where I can go deep into the game without throwing too many pitches," he said. "As long as everything's sinking down and I'm locating my pitches, at least I feel like that's where I should be. Obviously, some games are going to be different."

That's what sinkerball pitchers do when they're on. Yet as good as his sinker was working Saturday, his mixing of pitches might have been his best job changing speeds in his four-year Major League career.

Considering he was pitching in a 1-0 game for most of the night, every one of those pitches meant something.

"That's obviously what we needed," manager Jim Leyland said. "He did more than you could ask for."

The only other thing the Tigers could want from the 23-year-old is consistency, and he's showing strong signs of building that.

It was the third win in Porcello's last four outings, but it was his best single performance since he one-hit the Pirates for eight innings on May 22, 2011. Fittingly, that's also the last stretch in which he pitched this effectively.

Add up Saturday's performance with Porcello's previous two outings, and the 23-year-old has allowed three runs over his last 20 innings, lowering his ERA from 5.18 to 4.35. He might well have strengthened his rotation spot in the process on a team rumored to be in the market for pitching help as the non-waiver Trade Deadline nears.

"This is probably one of his better outings," catcher Alex Avila said. "And he's shown he can be that consistent. For him, it's all about making sure he's getting that sinker down in the zone, getting ground balls like he was doing today. He's going to have games like that. There's going to be games where those ground balls get through the hole, but that comes with being a sinkerball pitcher."

Porcello had his sinker working on his way to nine ground-ball outs. It worked in part because his offspeed pitches -- specifically, his ability to locate them where he wanted and when he needed them -- kept Rays hitters off-balance.

He threw a combination of 31 changeups and sliders, according to data from MLB.com's Gameday application and brooksbaseball.net, and 29 sinkers. The result was a mix that never allowed hitters to get comfortable, something that had become a problem when Porcello fired sinkers all the time earlier in the year.

It's something that was in the game plan specifically for this team and its left-handed hitters like Carlos Pena and Luke Scott.

"They're a very aggressive team, and everybody knows that Rick has a great sinker, and you have to be able to throw your other pitches to keep them off that pitch," Avila said. "Ricky did a really nice job today being able to mix that in there, throw the slider in there, especially to lefties -- back them off the plate a little bit. Just threw a ton of strikes today."

Porcello (6-5) retired 16 of Tampa Bay's first 17 batters. The only baserunner for the first 5 1/3 innings was Elliot Johnson, and he reached with a bunt single on an 0-2 pitch. Six Rays grounded out in that stretch, and three struck out.

His former Tigers teammate, Will Rhymes, broke up Porcello's groove with a one-out single in the sixth that sparked the only rally the Rays put together against him. Even then, the ensuing hits -- a Desmond Jennings ground ball through the left side, and a Pena chopper that seemingly died on the turf in front of home plate as Porcello charged -- weren't all that damaging.

Nonetheless, they left Porcello staring at a bases-loaded, sixth-inning jam for the second straight outing. He wasn't facing the same lineup he did in Texas, but he had only one out and the heart of the Rays' lineup due up.

He needed just two pitches to escape it. B.J. Upton popped up the first to deep shortstop to take away the sacrifice fly opportunity. Luke Scott grounded out to second on the next one as Porcello bounced into the dugout.

"Obviously, when I got into trouble, I went to my sinker against Upton and Scott," Porcello said. "We were able to get two balls that weren't hit very hard. That's a plus for sure."

At that point, Porcello was protecting a 1-0 lead built when Prince Fielder smacked a third-inning, bases-loaded comebacker off the right shin of Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson, scoring Austin Jackson. Hellickson had to leave the game, but the Rays' bullpen held down Detroit for the next four frames.

Not until a Joel Peralta pitch off Ramon Santiago's shoulder could the Tigers capitalize. Santiago's fifth hit-by-pitch this season extended the eighth inning for Jackson, who sent a Peralta fastball deep to left field for his eighth home run.

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