BALTIMORE -- For the first time in Rick Porcello's career, he's a winner at Camden Yards. The way his season is going, he's getting a lot of breakthrough wins.
Seven starts in, the latest a 4-1 win over the Orioles on Monday night, this has the makings of the breakthrough season that many had wondered would be coming from him sooner or later.
"It's baseball. You don't rush to judgment over six weeks. But he's certainly pitched well," manager Brad Ausmus said.
It almost got lost in the emotions over Bud Norris' eighth-inning fastball to Torii Hunter's ribs -- two pitches after Ian Kinsler's two-run homer built the final margin of victory -- and the argument that ensued, culminating in an ejection for Norris and a shouting match between Hunter and the Orioles' dugout.
For that matter, it almost got lost when Ian Krol had to battle Nick Markakis to strand the tying run on third base with two outs in the seventh inning, just after Ausmus pulled Porcello as a precaution with tightness in his side.
Considering where Porcello stands on Detroit's staff, maybe it's natural for his work to get overlooked. Yet on a staff that boasts two of the last three American League Cy Young Award winners and the reigning AL ERA champion, Porcello (6-1) leads the team in wins. In fact, only Toronto's Mark Buehrle, who picked up his seventh win Monday night, has more.
"I feel good," Porcello said. "I think there's a lot of things I can keep improving on. I want to keep getting better, don't want to plateau. We're playing good baseball right now. We need to keep it going. I think as long as we all stay consistent, we should keep playing like this."
Porcello has won his last five starts, four of them going six innings or more with two runs or less. His WHIP of 1.03 ranks fourth in the AL. His .267 on-base percentage allowed ranks sixth. His ratio of 1.21 walks per nine innings is lower than anyone in the league besides David Price, and his 4.83 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranks just outside the AL's top five.
It's early, but this might well be the maturation into the pitcher many hoped Porcello would become after his rookie season. It's coming in his sixth Major League campaign, but at the relatively young age of 25.
"He's the same pitcher. He's a lot more polished," said Kinsler, who spent five years hitting against him before playing behind him this season. "He's commanding his pitches a lot better. He has a better idea of what he needs to do to be successful. I think he understands how to get over that hump in the middle of a game. And as we've seen this year, he's gotten stronger in starts as the game's gone on."
Two of Porcello's six wins this year have come against an Orioles lineup with the kind of left-handed power hitters that used to hit him hard. In both cases, he pitched six innings or more of one-run ball, not racking up strikeouts but not giving up an abundance of base hits, either.
"We knew what he was going to do coming in," said O's manager Buck Showalter. "They have the type of pitchers you know what they're going to do coming in, and they're still able to do it because it's not just one thing you're looking for."
This time, it wasn't the Orioles who knocked him out. It was Ausmus, who pulled him after 83 pitches after he took note of what they hope is a minor injury.
"He fought me. He wanted to stay in," Ausmus said. "Certainly that final inning he threw, he looked strong, but I just think it being May, out of precaution I took him out of the game."
The only run off Porcello came in an adventurous second inning, when Steve Clevenger doubled over Rajai Davis' head into the left-field corner to drive in J.J. Hardy. Andrew Romine's throwing error continued the inning, but Porcello ended the threat with a groundout to first, stumbling to cover the bag but getting the out.
From there, Porcello rolled, allowing three singles over the next four innings but permitting none of them to advance from there. He struck out just two batters, but took advantage of nine ground-ball outs and some well-timed flyouts from Baltimore's power hitters.
The O's went 2-for-9 their first time through the order against Porcello. They were 3-for-15 after that, and that signifies as much of a key as anything. He entered the night allowing a .304 batting average and .826 OPS for his career the second time through a batting order. This season, he's holding them to 10-for-61 (.164).
"I think I've caught some breaks this year early on, which have helped me out," he said. "I think just consistency with all my pitches has been a little bit different than years past. I have a couple more pitches that I can throw in situations. I think having a little bit larger of a repertoire now, being able to change speeds a little better, has definitely helped."
His offense, meanwhile, rallied to put him in front with two outs in the fourth. Though Norris held Detroit hitless until Miguel Cabrera dumped a single into center field with one out in the fourth, the hit came with Kinsler on third, allowing him to score easily to tie the game. Victor Martinez's double moved Cabrera to third for Austin Jackson's sac fly.
Kinsler went 2-for-3 with two runs scored and two RBIs, including his fourth home run of the year to complete the two-out rally in the eighth, though the drama for the inning was just getting started.
Norris was ejected after hitting Hunter two pitches later, prompting the benches to clear.
"The guy had control," Hunter said. "I was actually thinking he's got good stuff today, he's pitching pretty well. And boy, he just all of a sudden lost it? I mean, get in front of a pitching machine -- I want all the people out there to get in front of a pitching machine, put it on 94 [mph], just hold your ribs up and take one, see what turns out for you."
The two engaged in a shouting match on Hunter's way to first base, and again after Norris exited to the Orioles' dugout.
"Obviously he didn't like it," Norris said. "He's entitled to his opinion, but I think he did overreact a little bit. I didn't like the first swing he took on my slider, so I didn't think I was going to jump out to the other half of the plate again."