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In fifth-starter battle, Porcello takes first step

Righty felt 'calm,' 'relaxed' in spring debut despite uncertainty

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Gerald Laird played a big role in Rick Porcello's success as a rookie in 2009, catching him often and encouraging him midseason to mix his pitches to get hitters off his sinker. When Laird caught Porcello last season, he got him to mix his pitches earlier to see what was working.

As Laird opened his Atlanta Braves career on Friday, he was looking at Porcello from the other dugout. He still had his best interests in mind.

"I saw he was starting, so I sent him a text," Laird said, "and I said, 'Don't look at me if I come in the box. I know you're battling right now for a spot, so I don't want to take you out of your concentration.'

"He sent me a text back [that read]: 'Haha.'"

It never got to that point, at least for the Spring Training opener. Porcello finished his work by the time Laird came up to bat in the bottom of the third. Even this early in camp, the way Porcello felt on the mound gave at least some pause to the questions about Porcello also becoming a former Tiger by Opening Day.

After a hurricane, a cleanup, a number change, a winter of trade rumors and the beginning of a camp of rotation competition, Porcello finally got on a stage where he controls his fate. The results didn't stand out as much as the feeling when he took the mound.

This, for him, might have been the long-awaited calm.

"I think every other first outing I've had in the spring, I've been excited and had butterflies," Porcello said. "Today was the calmest and I think the most relaxed I've ever been, opening up the season in Spring Training.

"The excitement that you have just getting back out on to the field to compete, playing against a different team, all that stuff, you get butterflies. It doesn't matter if it's Spring Training or the first game of the regular season. You get excited to compete and play in front of a crowd. Today, I was calm, probably the most calm I've ever been my first time out."

Asked why, he shrugged.

"I don't have an answer," Porcello said. "I was just focused on the stuff I wanted to accomplish and didn't think about anything else."

He wanted to get a mix of pitches going, and he did, with a diet of mid-90s fastballs, changeups and an occasional curve. He wanted to get in and out quickly, and he retired all six Braves hitters he faced, capping it with an 84 mph offspeed pitch that ducked off the outside corner to strike out Freddie Freeman.

It wasn't a long game for Porcello, but he commanded it. Manager Jim Leyland isn't going to make much of a first Spring Training outing, but he'll take it.

"I think he's thought about some things, worked on some things this winter," Leyland said. "I think he's confident. He's been around long enough now.

"He threw the ball really well -- I mean, 94-95 mph with some good changeups, a couple good breaking balls. He hung one breaking ball he tried to overthrow. I think he got a popup out of it."

Even in Spring Training, confidence means something, especially for somebody with a situation in flux. Laird has seen that confidence in Porcello over the years, both confidence in himself and in his pitches.

"The kid's got guts," Laird said. "I enjoyed being back there for him. He's not afraid of anything out there. I know when he's commanding that sinker on both sides of the plate and has that third pitch going, it's going to be a good day for him."

The sinker, of course, is the workhorse pitch. The changeup is the second. It's that third option, the breaking pitch, which lacks consistency. When Laird would catch Porcello last year, he'd call for the slider and curveball early to see which one was working, then go with it. He had success with both, and he struggled with both.

"He'll have it for three or four starts," Laird said of the slider, "and then he won't have it. And I just think it's more of having it all the time, or having it where he has confidence in throwing it all the time. He goes back from the curveball to the slider, slider to curveball, and I think if he just picks one and masters it, if he can get that third pitch really working, he's got everything it takes.

"He's unbelievable. The sinker's probably one of the best I've seen."

Laird also caught the other starting candidate, lefty Drew Smyly, last season. Still, he believes Porcello has earned a starting assignment.

"He's come a long way," Laird said. "He's a heckuva pitcher. I think he deserves a spot in that rotation. He's earned it, and I think he's going to have a good spring."

Porcello has seven more starts to go, more than any other Tigers starter this spring, during which he'll be stretched to those middle innings when hitters started giving him trouble last season. Along the way, he'll surely start to mix in the slider that has been a point of improvement since pitching coach Jeff Jones worked on his mechanics in January. He never really said how many he threw Friday.

For now, though, this is a good start. And as Porcello prepared to head back to Lakeland on Friday afternoon, trying to beat the rush hour traffic, he had a good retort for Laird.

"I'm going to text him and ask him why a .282 hitter is batting so low in the lineup," Porcello answered.

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.
Read More: Detroit Tigers, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly