Porcello left to wonder what might have been

Porcello left to wonder what might have been

DETROIT -- Rick Porcello had 'em on their feet early. The 42,234 in Comerica Park had watched the young Tigers right-hander all season, but they had never seen him like this.

Porcello wasn't just retiring the Texas Rangers. He was repelling them back into their dugout with stand-up-and-roar ease.

"The ball was coming out of my hand good. The slider was sharp, and I was able to mix it in and throw it for strikes," Porcello said. "I was sinking the fastball in on right-handed hitters."

Had he kept up that wizardry just a little bit longer, this American League Championship Series likely would now be tied at two games apiece. Had trouble not snowballed on him in the sixth, he would have turned over a lead to Detroit's end-game bullpen and the Tigers likely would have celebrated a nine-inning victory -- rather than the Rangers claiming another 11-inning win, 7-3, and a 3-to-1 series edge.

"I left some pitches up, and got hurt on them," Porcello said of the three-run, four-hit sixth inning that caved in on him.

"The first couple innings, he was really tough," said Texas' Ian Kinsler, who had broken up Porcello's shutout bid with a one-out RBI double in that sixth. "We got to see him the second time through and get a little better sense and a little better feel, and then the third time through we were finally able to get him."

Through three innings of Game 4 of the ALCS, Porcello had thrown 41 strikes among his 50 pitches, and had five strikeouts, within two of his season high. By the end of the fifth, he had six strikeouts and a strikes-to-balls ratio of 55-to-14.

He also had a 2-0 lead, thanks to a two-run double by Miguel Cabrera in the bottom of the third.

So Comerica Park stood as one to escort Porcello off the mound in the middle of the fifth, saluting the 22-year-old's response to the weighty assignment of giving the Tigers the edge in the ALCS.

Yes, the Tigers trailed in the series, 2-1, at the beginning of the day. But if ever there was a two-for-one game, this one really had that feel: With one victory, the Tigers could leapfrog from their hole to a psychological 3-2 summit.

That would have been the unavoidable implication of squaring the series at two games apiece, with Justin Verlander waiting in the wings for the Game 5 start.

That promise disappeared along with Porcello's precision and his lead.

Through five, he had faced 16 men and allowed two of them to reach base. From the start of the sixth until he left two men on base with two outs in the seventh for Al Alburquerque to deal with, six of Porcello's last 11 batters faced reached.

Porcello was complicit in Texas' three-run rally: His lack of attentiveness allowed Kinsler to burst from a huge walking lead into a steal of third, which forced the Tigers' infield to play in for Elvis Andrus, whose flair settled beyond the drawn-in defenders to deliver the tying run; after several close pickoff attempts of Andrus at first, Porcello made a wild one that allowed him to take second -- from where he scored the go-ahead run on another single by Michael Young.

"Pretty costly error," Porcello said. "That pickoff allowed them to score the third run.

"But, otherwise, nothing changed in that inning. They just got that double down the line [by Kinsler, to score David Murphy from first with the first run], and I gave up a couple more hits. My stuff wasn't any different, they just started hitting it.

"Sometimes, you've got to tip your hat. That's a good-hitting club."

Porcello's lapse was decisive, but not unusual. During the season, he often came off as untouchable early in a game, only to let the first threat against him get out of hand:

• On April 4, he held the Orioles to three hits through four innings -- then allowed four runs in the fifth.

• On April 29, he blanked the Yankees on one hit through three innings -- then couldn't survive a seven-run fourth.

• On June 29, he shut out the Athletics on one hit through three innings -- and allowed five runs on seven hits in the next two innings.

• On July 5, he blanked the Twins on one hit through three innings -- then coughed up six runs in the fourth.

Learning how to slow down the game when the walls appear to be closing in on you is part of the education of any young pitcher -- even if a postseason game is a costly classroom.

"Yeah, in a tough pressure situation against a good team, you've got to work hard at it. That's just the way it is," Porcello said. "You've got to somehow slow the game down and make pitches, do your best to get out of it.

"It's not rocket science: I just tried to get guys out, tried to get ground balls. I tried to use my fastball and slider, and work ahead of guys."

That worked early: He threw first-pitch strikes to his first eight batters, and 11 of the first 16. Then Porcello started to fall behind the Texas hitters. Partly as a direct result, Detroit remains behind the Texas club.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.