Porcello's emergence continues with complete-game shutout vs. Texas

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He’s not the guy who turned down $144 million over the winter. He is not the American League’s reigning ERA champ. His girlfriend is not Kate Upton. On a star-studded staff of strikeout artists who light up radar guns, a rotation with a pair of Cy Young winners in Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, and a pitcher who would be an ace on many staffs, Anibal Sanchez, it’s easy to forget the underappreciated fourth starter in one of the best rotations in baseball. But don’t sleep on Rick Porcello, the right-hander who is quietly becoming one of the better pitchers in the game.

On Thursday night in Arlington, Texas,in a game between two teams headed in different directions, the Tigers won their seventh straight to open up a 4.5 game in the AL Central, and the Rangers lost their eighth in a row to fall 13 games out of first place (and just a pair ahead of the last-place Astros) in the AL West. Detroit, which hit Texas starter Nick Martinez hard early, again showcased its mighty offensive firepower with a four-hit night from Miguel Cabrera and Austin Jackson driving in two runs.

Most of all, this night was about Porcello and his emergence as one of the best pitchers in the league, a key player for the Tigers in a summer where Verlander, with his perplexing struggles, has looked human and no longer the ace we’re used to. Porcello, who entered the game  3-4 with a 7.41 ERA in seven career starts against Texas, won his 10th game of the season with a virtuoso complete-game shutou. The 6-0 victory was a typical Porcellian performance: with a fastball that topped out in the low 90s and a nasty curveball, Porcello induced 14 groundball outs, including three double plays and the final six outs of the game, and struck out six over nine coolly efficient innings.  It was the second complete game of his career.

It’s easy to forget the right-hander from New Jersey is still just 25. He was drafted by the Tigers out of high school in the first round of the 2007 draft, and was pitching in the majors two years later, at age 20. He won 14 games in his rookie season and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. Porcello struggled the next two seasons, and scouts and evaluators began to wonder if he’d ever bloom into the top-of-the-rotation starter many thought he’d be. Then he developed a curveball, improved against left-handers, and since the start of 2013, has been a very good pitcher. Now, with an improved double play combination behind him in Ian Kinsler and Eugenio Suarez, Porcello, is 10-4 with a 3.41 ERA in his best season yet.

Just a week ago the Tigers looked like they were in trouble. They lost for the 16th time in 22 games on June 18, after the Royals flattened them 2-1 for their 10th straight win to take a 1.5-game lead in the division. Since then, the Tigers have reeled off seven straight wins while the Royals have lost six of their last seven. The Royals, with their 28-year playoff drought, are always a compelling story; the Indians, with their cast of characters, are always an entertaining team; the little team that could, the Twins, are somehow hanging around in the division.

But the Tigers are still clearly the best team in the AL Central, still one of baseball’s true heavyweights, and a big reason why is Rick Porcello.