ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Rick Porcello did not look like a pitcher who had a chance at becoming the second since 1980 to lose 20 games in a single season.
No, Porcello looked much more like the Cy Young Award winner who went 22-4 a year ago.
Porcello put on a clinic in last night’s 3-1 Red Sox win at Tropicana Field, where he carved up the Tampa Bay Rays for 71⁄3 innings, allowing just one unearned run in his final frame. He threw an efficient 94 pitches (63 strikes), then turned things over to the bullpen. Addison Reed and Craig Kimbrel (save No. 33) finished up, assuring the first-place Sox would keep their three-game lead over the New York Yankees in the AL East.
This was not the same Porcello who took the mound against the Rays at Fenway Park last Sunday, a pitcher who gave up only two runs in five innings but inspired such little confidence in his manager that John Farrell yanked him before the sixth, after just 95 pitches.
This time Porcello was much more efficient. He was sharp. He pounded the strike zone. And he didn’t walk a batter until the eighth inning.
Command, not power, was the reason for his breakout campaign of 2016, when he completed 11 starts without issuing a walk, and 24 of his 33 starts featured one walk or less.
Porcello had only completed five starts without a walk this year, and none since July 16. Only 18 of his 31 starts included one walk or fewer.
The numbers were all lopsided heading into this start. He led the majors in loses (17) and had a chance to become the first since Mike Maroth in 2003 for the Detroit Tigers to lose 20 games. He led the majors in home runs allowed (35) but rarely gave up hard contact in this one. He led the majors in hits allowed (220) but gave up just five, three of which were singles, to the Rays.
And this was against a Rays team that knocked Chris Sale around for four runs in Friday’s series opener.
With only two more starts to make before a potential postseason run, Porcello was running out of time to prove to the Red Sox, and the fan base, that he was worth starting and supporting in a playoff series. With Sale and Drew Pomeranz likely to make the first two postseason starts, the fight for the third and potentially fourth starter, if the Sox choose to use one, would be between Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez and Doug Fister.
Mookie Betts has been anything but hot, entering the middle game of the series with a .239 average and .738 OPS since the start of August.
And when Rays starter Alex…