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Despite Porcello's slump, Tigers' options few

Ineffective sinker a contributor to right-hander's 6.20 ERA in September

DETROIT -- Rick Porcello's sinker is trending up. As often follows when that happens, so are his numbers.

And while both the Tigers right-hander and manager Brad Ausmus downplay workload as a factor with Porcello after he finished this regular season with a career-high 204 2/3 innings -- 27 more than he threw all of last year -- neither of them is pretending the struggles are not an issue.

"I think it's just a product of being up in the zone a little bit; they're able to lift the ball," Porcello said on Friday night after the Twins knocked him out in the fourth inning with six runs, four of which were earned. "I have to get back to getting the ball down, getting the sinker down in the zone and getting more ground balls. Any time I get in a situation like this where I'm giving up hits and fly balls, it's because I'm up in the zone. I've just got to recover and get the ball back down."

Last season, Porcello finished third in the Majors, and second in the American League, with a ratio of 2.4 ground balls per fly ball. His 1.8 GB/FB ratio this year ranks him 24th in the Majors and eighth in the AL. That ratio took a hit in September, with the young righty allowing more fly balls (45) than ground balls (43).

It doesn't completely explain Porcello's 6.20 ERA for the month, but it helps. Likewise, sinker location can't be the cause entirely, but it's responsible for a decent share.

Porcello's ground-air numbers were deceptively good on Friday. He allowed twice as many grounders as fly balls, and he converted six ground balls into outs. However, all four balls hit in the air off Porcello were crushed for extra-base hits -- two home runs, one ground-rule double and another double to the fence.

"They were not good pitches," Porcello said. "They were fastballs in good hitter's counts. They were middle of the plate, drivable pitches. I just didn't execute them. I've been successful this year in getting ahead of batters, and that's been the big thing. In those two at-bats, I did not get ahead of them and I paid the price."

Said Ausmus: "His ball's still sinking. His breaking ball's still good. It's just a matter of location."

Porcello went into the All-Star break with a 12-5 record and a 3.39 ERA. He's 3-8 since, but his 3.48 ERA is just a slight uptick, though nine of his 42 second-half runs allowed were unearned. His strikeout rate is up and his walk rate is down, but he's giving up a higher batting average (.287) and a significantly higher average on balls put in play (.333).

What the Tigers can do about it is another matter. Anibal Sanchez is staying in the bullpen, so the only option for the postseason would be to replace Porcello in a potential AL Division Series rotation with rookie left-hander Kyle Lobstein. Ausmus' remarks seemed to indicate that's unlikely.

"I'm not blind to the fact that it could be related to innings," Ausmus said, "but we're at a point in the season where we can't not start Rick Porcello today. That's kind of where we're at."

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.
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