LAKELAND, Fla. -- Rick Porcello can't answer the questions about his future as a Tiger, and he's not going to. All he can do is answer the questions about his game as a Major League starter.
"I think Rick knows that he's a Major League starting pitcher," manager Jim Leyland said, "and I think he's just come in here to make sure everybody's aware of that."
Sunday was a potentially huge day in an already big spring.
Yes, it's only Spring Training, and that's pretty much all that the Tigers -- and other teams -- can use to weigh the work Porcello has put in since January, after a sub-par stretch run last season that put his rotation spot in Detroit in question. Still, four starts in, 13 innings with three earned runs, no walks and 14 strikeouts have to stand for something.
Sunday's five scoreless innings on three singles with four strikeouts against the Nationals represented a step for him against a group of hitters that plagued him. Though Washington's lineup had only Bryce Harper among its Opening Day projected starters, it had four left-handed hitters and a switch-hitter, including the entire top third of the order. With Wilson Ramos and Steve Lombardozzi also slated to make the club, it was a tougher lineup than the Astros fielded against Porcello.
Left-handed hitters batted .325 off of Porcello last season. Porcello approached them like he would approach lefties in the regular season, and ended up with the kind of success he lacked last year.
"I'm going to be seeing that all year," Porcello said. "Those are the guys I've got to get out."
All four of Porcello's strikeouts on Sunday came against left-handed hitters. Three were called third strikes. When Lombardozzi crowded the plate on him in the opening inning, he spotted a fastball on the inside corner and got the call. He did much the same against Chad Tracy in a three-pitch strikeout an inning later.
"His stuff had late life," Leyland said.
Then came Harper, who blistered a fastball back through the middle in the first for the one solid hit Porcello gave up. Harper came back up to lead off the fifth and got in the same 1-0 count on which he made Porcello pay earlier for throwing him a fastball.
"In that situation, a good fastball hitter like him, you know he's looking to drive a fastball. He's in a hitters' count," Porcello said. "I just tried to stay away from that and threw some good offspeed pitches and then caught him looking."
Harper swung and missed at a changeup, fouled off a curve, then watched a 1-2 fastball swing back over the corner for the call.
"That reflects the confidence that I have in my offspeed pitches," Porcello said. "I'm not going out there just to work on stuff. I'm going out there to get guys out and approach it like a normal game."
The more he pitches like this, the more confidence will build from the staff. Leyland said afterwards that Porcello threw some of the best curveballs he's ever seen from him.
"He had it all going today. He was really sharp," Leyland said.
After close to a dozen scouts watched Porcello's last outing, the scout total appeared to be down this time around. However, most scouts don't spend time following particular players around game after game in the spring, especially this early.