BOSTON -- The last time Rick Porcello pitched at Fenway Park, he took the loss in relief in Game 2 of the 2013 American League Championship Series. He couldn't crack Detroit's postseason rotation, thus placing him in a nearly unwinnable situation of following Joaquin Benoit after David Ortiz's game-tying grand slam that night.
Seven months later, Porcello is looking nearly unbeatable. After eight innings of one-run ball in Saturday night's 6-1 Tigers win over the Red Sox, he owns a 7-1 record with a 2.91 ERA, with top-10 stats in several secondary categories. The reasons why were on display.
"The real story was Rick," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "That was probably his best outing."
Porcello's not only pitching like a front-line starter on a staff that includes two Cy Young Award winners and the reigning AL ERA champion, he might be putting together an early case for All-Star consideration.
"It's May," Porcello shrugged. "I've said before, this is a marathon, it's not a sprint. ... The most important thing to me right now is that we're in first place and we're playing good ball. That's huge. We want to keep that going."
The Tigers' success wasn't necessarily a surprise, though at 26-12, they're continuing their best start since 1984, including a 10-game road winning streak that's also their best in 30 years.
Porcello's success has thrown opponents a curveball. He's succeeding, in part, because he's throwing opponents very good curveballs. He pulled off a fifth-inning escape to stay in line for his sixth consecutive win because he threw Ortiz one.
The same team that pounded Porcello last season by sitting on his sinker never found its comfort zone.
"I think the big thing for him is the fact that his secondary stuff has gotten so much better," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "His changeup is really good. His curveball's good. He's using his cutter wisely. I think it's a combination of a lot of different things, and realizing when you get into situations where things start to go south a little bit, what to do to fix it."
Jones has seen Porcello grow up. He was on the coaching staff when Porcello cracked the rotation at age 20, becoming a mentor. As he thought about Porcello's latest win, he had to smile.
"He's learned a lot about himself since he's been in the big leagues," Jones said. "Learned how to get out of situations, stay out of big innings."
It wasn't just the 2013 ALCS that made Fenway a house of horrors for Porcello. His first start here in 2009 was the game in which Kevin Youkilis charged the mound in the second inning, igniting a dustup that led to both being ejected. His last start here was a 20-4 loss last Sept. 4 in which he gave up nine runs over five-plus innings, including home runs by three of the first 13 batters he faced.
"Everybody gets their butt kicked," Porcello said. "The difference is how well you can rebound from it."
One of those homers was a line drive by Ortiz to tie the game in the fourth inning. As Porcello stood on the mound with two outs and a runner on in the fifth Saturday, having already allowed a Xander Bogaerts solo homer to put the Red Sox on the scoreboard, the situation felt similar.
Porcello briefly struggled to keep his sinkerball down, not only with Bogaerts' homer but with three other hard-hit line drives the previous couple innings. His usual ground-ball out was hard to find, and with Dustin Pedroia on first in a 2-1 game, he needed an out against Ortiz.
"He's arguably one of the best left-handed power hitters of all time," Porcello said. "You can't fall into patterns against a guy like that. You have to be able to mix it up. Honestly, in that situation, I just felt like I can't let him hurt me. This is the one guy in their lineup that has got the ability to go deep on any pitch in any situation."
Porcello had a 2-0 count, then got Ortiz to foul off back-to-back pitches to get back to even. He couldn't induce Ortiz to chase a high fastball, running the count full, but his curveball in the dirt got Ortiz to bite.
"We were trying to mix it up, trying to move the fastball in and out, change speeds on him," Porcello continued. "I was fortunate enough to get a checked swing on a 3-2 breaking ball."
The sinkerballing Porcello has felt confident in his curveball -- a pitch he didn't regularly throw until last season -- so far this season, enough that he started off hitters with it Saturday. In the case of Ortiz, the finishing curve was one of his biggest pitches of his night, along with a fastball A.J. Pierzynski hit on the ground with the bases loaded in the fourth.
"I think the biggest thing was I had a really good sinker and curveball combination," Porcello said. "The changeup was effective, especially to left-handed hitters, but the sinker and curveball were the best, I think, all year."
At that point, Porcello was nursing a lead built on single-run rallies in the second and third. Detroit had the bases loaded in the second inning and came out with a lone run for the second straight night. Miguel Cabrera then poked a pitch around Pesky's Pole in right field for a solo homer in the third. Back-to-back doubles from Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter and an RBI single from Cabrera gave Porcello a 4-0 lead heading into the bottom of the fifth.
By the time the Tigers were done with Red Sox starter John Lackey (5-3), he had allowed six runs, five earned, on nine hits over 5 1/3 innings. It was a small measure of revenge for the 6 2/3 shutout innings he delivered against them in Game 3 of the ALCS last October in a 1-0 game at Comerica Park.
"Miggy pushes an 0-2 fastball that finds its way out of the ballpark for the solo home run," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "And the way Porcello has been pitching all season and again tonight, early runs, we find ourselves behind."
Porcello, once again, found himself on top. He's 14-3 with a 3.38 ERA since last season's All-Star break.
"He's getting better," Cabrera said. "He knows what he's doing."