BOSTON — It was a rare display of emotion from an unemotional man.
On his 99th and final pitch, on a damp and chilly Thursday night, Rick Porcello rocked back and uncorked a changeup. And after Aaron Hicks swung through it, ending the top of the seventh inning and leaving two New York Yankees teammates on base, Porcello let out a shout as he walked away from the mound.
Excuse him. Porcello had been waiting a long time for this, and we aren’t referring to the 45-minute rain delay between the fifth and sixth innings.
The Boston Red Sox right-hander won the American League Cy Young Award in 2016, lost both his sinker and his mojo last year and tried everything this past winter to get it back. He re-read “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching,” the tome of late longtime sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman. He chatted up Derek Lowe at a Red Sox offseason event in January and invited the former sinkerballer and Fort Myers, Florida, resident to come observe him in spring training and offer feedback. Porcello even rigged up a string in those spring bullpen sessions to better identify where his pitches were entering the strike zone.
Three starts into the season, it all seems to have worked. He gave up four runs over 12⅔ innings in back-to-back wins against the Tampa Bay Rays, and then, on Thursday night, carried a no-hitter through six innings against the vaunted Yankees. Aaron Judge broke it up with a leadoff double in the seventh, but Porcello gave up only two hits and struck out six in seven walk-free innings of a 6-3 Red Sox victory in the rubber game of the first series of the season against their rivals from New York.
So, if Porcello felt like shouting as he left the game, well, let’s just say he was entitled.
“It feels good,” said Porcello, who has a 1.83 ERA through three starts. “Most importantly, I’m contributing to the team in a positive way. That’s the biggest thing. I’m three starts in, we’re 12 games in, a lot of baseball to be played, but definitely want to continue to build off this start.”
And make no mistake, the Red Sox are counting on it.
The Sox are off to a 10-2 start, matching the 1904, 1918 and 1952 teams for the best 12-game start in franchise history. They also got positive news Thursday when ace lefty David Price played catch in the outfield and felt no ill effects after leaving his start after a four-run first inning Wednesday night with numbness in his left hand.
Price is scheduled to start Tuesday night in Anaheim, California, giving him an extra day of rest and a chance to pitch in warmer weather than Boston’s persistent 40-degree chill.
“I knew [Thursday] morning whenever I woke up, I knew it [Wednesday] night before I went to sleep. There was never any thought in my mind that [an elbow injury from] last year reoccurred or anything like that,” Price said. “My hand was just literally numb, and I couldn’t feel it.”
Price said he has dealt with cold hands and feet since childhood, and “whenever it’s cold outside, it intensifies that.” But regardless of how much he downplayed it, the Red Sox have to be concerned that Price couldn’t feel his hand in an early-season start against the Yankees. And since their World Series hopes are pinned largely to a starting rotation that is headlined by aces Chris Sale and Price, the notion of Porcello getting his 2016 groove back and leaving behind his 2017 struggles could be a difference-maker.
“I just feel like me,” Porcello said. “I feel like I can go out there and attack guys and go at them with whatever I’ve got. That’s it.”
That wasn’t the case last year. Porcello’s success or failure is largely predicated on his ability to command his sinker below the strike zone. But Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who served as the Houston Astros‘ bench coach last season, recalled hearing Carlos Beltran talk about Porcello’s velocity and movement remaining consistent but his changeup being less effective than in the past.
It was encouraging, then, with Judge and Giancarlo Stanton on base and two out in the seventh inning, to see Porcello turn to the changeup to get a strikeout of Hicks.
“Sometimes you’ve got a man on second, man on third, and you’ve got to call that pitch and you don’t know what to call,” catcher Sandy Leon said. “But now you can call that pitch because he’s going to execute.”
Asked about his changeup against the Yankees, Porcello said it “felt real good.” But then, Porcello added, “everything felt real good.”
Going forward, that has to make the Red Sox feel good.