By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – The Detroit Tigers have gotten more than they bargained for with Joaquin Benoit and Rick Porcello.
The Tigers secured several star players going into this season, no doubt about it. While those guys – Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander and others – have been instrumental in the team’s success, so have Benoit and Porcello, pitchers whom few outside the organization would have expected to be much more than average.
Benoit began the season as the set-up man, the eighth-inning guy, and even when it became apparent that Jose Valverde would no longer be closing games, Benoit hardly wanted to jump into the role. Over time, though, he flourished, saving 21 games, and the Tigers flourished too.
“It’s been impressive,” catcher Alex Avila said. “It’s not surprising. I’ve caught him the last three years and seen the kind of stuff he has. He’s always had closer stuff. He was so dominant in that set-up role, though, I don’t think anybody wanted to mess with that, but we had no other option, and he’s taken that role very well.”
Not merely adequate in the closer spot, Benoit is having one of the best seasons of his career, and particularly a significant improvement on year. His ERA – which in 2012 was 3.68 – now is 1.94. He has allowed four homers in 2013 – 10 fewer bombs than he gave up in 2012. Even when he gets in a tough spot, like when he walked the first batter in the ninth Monday night, Benoit has the composure to get out of jams.
“He’s done a really great job,” manager Jim Leyland said. “You couldn’t ask for any more than he’s done so far, so we’re thrilled with him.”
Porcello, while he does not have the dramatic contrast in numbers between 2013 and 2012 that Benoit does, has also been a pleasant surprise and somewhat underrated.
In 22 of 28 games this season, Porcello has allowed three runs or fewer, which he only did in 17 starts in 2012.
His ERA of 4.45 masks the fact that Porcello almost always gives the Tigers a chance to win. When Porcello has gotten dinged, he has usually got dinged in a noticeable way, giving up nine runs each in two starts plus seven and six runs in two other outings. Those performances have skewed his overall numbers a bit.
Porcello has also gotten better throughout the season. Since July, he has limited opponents to three runs or fewer in 11 of his last 13 starts. Monday night he allowed just one run, and the Tigers rolled to a 4-2 victory. Leyland said Porcello’s change-up Monday was one of the best he had seen from the pitcher, and the curveball was also working well.
“His last few starts, you’ll see flashes where he’ll throw two or three good ones, hang one, and then a few good ones,” Avila said. “It was good today again, but I think it was just more consistent as far as him finishing that pitch.”
Veteran right fielder Torii Hunter said Porcello’s mechanical and mental progress helped significantly.
“He’s starting to change speeds a lot,” Hunter said. “He used to have a slider, he threw it pretty hard, and the sinker, everything was hard, so you kind of gauge it off that, but now he’s trying to hit his spots, in and out, hard, soft, changing up the sequence a lot, and mixing it up well.
“He’s grown,” Hunter added. “He’s smarter. He knows if a guy can’t hit a certain pitch he keeps throwing it ‘til he shows that he can hit it. I think that’s maturity because when you’re young, you’re like, ‘Hit this! I don’t care if you fouled it out. Hit it again!’ And Porcello’s not doing that anymore. He sees something ahold of your swing, he’s going to keep throwing it.”
Porcello’s push for a place in the postseason rotation might be even more impressive given he is just 24 years old. Even at that age, though, he is finishing his fifth major-league season and is 61-50 during that span.
“He’s improved every year,” Avila said. “You’re not going to find too many guys his age that’s won as many ball games in the big leagues. He’s extremely poised and a hard worker and the kind of pitcher you want on the staff. He’s stepping up at the end of the season, as well as all of our other guys are, and doing a good job.”