ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Rick Porcello was laboring through a 39-pitch fourth inning Tuesday night, having loaded the bases on two walks and a single before walking in a run, when Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell directed pitching coach Carl Willis to reach for the bullpen phone.
Call it a reflex. Farrell has grown so accustomed to pulling his starters from games in the early innings that he nearly forgot to give Porcello a chance to work out of his self-inflicted jam. No Red Sox pitcher has bent without breaking quite as well as Porcello, who is every bit as good at damage control as a presidential campaign strategist.
Sure enough, Porcello reached back for a 94 mph fastball to strike out Tampa Bay Rays catcher Hank Conger, got leadoff man Logan Forsythe to fly to shallow center field and locked Brad Miller up with a third-strike sinker to preserve the Red Sox's one-run lead en route to a had-to-have-it 8-2 victory at Tropicana Field. It was the Red Sox's third win in their past nine games.
"A couple of those guys, I very easily could have given in and given them a cookie to throw a strike to try to keep my pitch count down. I didn't do it," Porcello said. "I'm happy I didn't do it. Obviously, I'm not happy I walked a run in, walked three guys, but I'm happy they didn't get the big hit. My mind was on winning the game."
It's entirely possible that Porcello's ears were still ringing with Farrell's words from Monday's postgame meeting. Speaking to the entire team but directing most of his frustration at the struggling pitching staff, Farrell implored the starters to "lead from the mound," especially after a four-game stretch in which David Price, Steven Wright, Clay Buchholz and demoted Eduardo Rodriguez combined to allow 27 earned runs on 37 hits in 15 innings.
Porcello did precisely that. For a change, the Sox didn't allow a first-inning run. Porcello (9-2) retired nine of the first 13 batters, five by strikeout, before he threw 12 of 22 pitches out of the strike zone in a four-batter spell in the fourth inning. But after Nick Franklin drew a bases-loaded walk, the veteran right-hander regrouped and retired the next nine batters before yielding to the bullpen.
Behold: a six-inning start that felt like a complete game.
"We need more of that," David Ortiz said. "Definitely. I'm not a pitching coach. I don't know much about it. But yeah, we need some of that more often."
Said Farrell: "[Porcello] had his back against the wall in those first four innings, and he did an outstanding job. Even when he lost a little bit of the strike zone in the fourth inning, he didn’t give in. After he got through that fourth inning, he had even more action to his sinker. It was almost like the more tired he got in that ballgame, the better command overall and the better sink he was able to produce. Good to see Rick go out, set the tone, keep the game under control for six innings."
More often than not, that's what Porcello has done this season. Overlooked at times with Price's lack of dominance, Wright's surprising success and the dismal 7.37 ERA posted by the six pitchers who have occupied the final two spots in the rotation, Porcello has completed at least six innings in a team-leading 13 starts. His 3.78 ERA is better than AL average (4.52), which makes him a solid mid-rotation option for a Red Sox club that hasn't gotten nearly enough quality or quantity from its starters.
"He's been everything we could've hoped," Farrell said. "You look at a starting pitcher that can go out and be consistent every fifth day. He's been a model of that for us."
There were other encouraging signs, namely three hits and five RBIs by third baseman Travis Shaw, who responded to a day off Monday by hitting his first home run since May 28, a span of 89 at-bats.
But the Red Sox needed a quality start like a nomad in the desert needs water. Porcello wouldn't discuss Farrell's message in the team meeting -- "That's in-house stuff," he said -- but there shouldn't have been a starting pitcher in the room who didn't take it as a challenge.
"We take a lot of pride as a starting rotation in being effective and setting the tone for our team," Porcello said. "But more important, for our team as a whole, we need to get wins, need to get back on the right page."
Porcello delivered that much, and now, with Price set to start Wednesday's matinee series finale, the Red Sox somehow have a chance to escape a challenging road trip with a 3-3 record.
"A lot of things haven't been going right, but I don't think our confidence or our faith in anybody in this locker room as swayed one bit," Shaw said. "I think everybody in here, there's obviously some determination to turn this around. That outside noise, you don't want it creeping in here too loud. It's nice to come back with a statement game tonight and kind of get everybody to sleep easy tonight."
Isn't it amazing what one quality pitching performance will do?