DETROIT — Rick Porcello, who just happens to be an avid fisherman, is in uncharted waters now.
The Detroit Tigers right-hander notched his 15th win of the season in Tuesday night’s 5-2 victory over the New York Yankees. Porcello had won 14 games twice before, in 2009 and 2011, and has a new career standard with one month and a half-dozen starts remaining.
Porcello still has an outside chance at winning 20 games, especially with the way he’s pitched the last two times out.
He threw his American League-leading third complete game shutout of the season last week at Tampa Bay, and the only runs he allowed in eight innings against the Yankees were from a pair of solo homers by Jacoby Ellsbury, who absolutely owns Porcello.
These days, such ownership of Porcello is rare. He might’ve brought a career 4.51 ERA into this season and been the team’s fourth starter, but now his 3.06 ERA is among the American League’s top 10, and his win total shares the league lead with teammate and 2013 Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.
With 2013 AL earned-run-average leader Anibal Sanchez (pectoral muscle) out indefinitely and Justin Verlander at 11-11 with a 4.82 ERA, there’s no disputing that Scherzer, Porcello and the recently-acquired David Price are the new "Big Three" pitching punch for Detroit.
Porcello’s also joined more elite company by winning the 76th game of his career to match the total CC Sabathia had before turning 26. The only active pitchers to have won more often at 25 are Felix Hernandez (86) and Clayton Kershaw (77).
"Those are two tremendous pitchers," Porcello said of Hernandez and Kershaw. "And I’m proud of my body of work, but I just want to keep getting better. It’s nice to be in that position and be recognized, but we’re in a pennant chase here. And personal success comes with team success."
Subtract Ellsbury and Porcello, who threw only 101 pitches in eight innings, might have pitched his fourth shutout of the season. But Ellsbury is now .647 with four homers in 17 at-bats against Porcello.
"He’s a great hitter who lets the ball get deep," Porcello said. "But a lot of guys have gotten a lot of hits off me, and maybe one day I will think of something to get him out."
Ellsbury’s homers were the only extra-base hits Porcello allowed Tuesday night, and he got the win to keep climbing a very impressive chart.
The other three with 76 wins or more have at least one Cy Young Award to their credit, and Porcello just might have one in his future. The best indication of this is that he’s becoming a horse by pitching deep into games.
Porcello has the second-most innings (173 1/3) on the team behind Scherzer (181), and if Porcello pitches seven innings in each of his last six starts, he will have at least 215. He’s never surpassed 182 innings before.
Porcello has pitched at least seven complete innings in nine of his last 11 starts. This impressive stretch began on June 26 with his first career complete-game shutout, against the Rangers in Texas, where it’s a notorious hitters’ ballpark.
"He’s so mature, so confident," said Tigers closer Joe Nathan, who pitched a 1-2-3 ninth Tuesday for his 28th save. "He’s pounding the strike zone and throwing all four of his pitches for strikes.
"We look up in the bullpen and see his pitch count in the middle innings, and it’s such a nice feeling for us down there. Rick is going deep into games all the time."
Porcello was 13-8 with a 4.32 ERA last year and was the odd-man out of the playoff rotation. But now he’ll be counted on to win big games early in a playoff series if Detroit can overtake the Kansas City Royals (1 1/2-game lead) in the Central or advance via the wild-card route.
So what’s been the biggest difference for him?
"The sinker being down is key," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "Behind that is throwing his secondary pitches for strikes, especially the curveball."
The curve, which Porcello began to develop last year, has been the difference-maker pitch for him. But if you ask him, he’ll tell you that great defense — with new second baseman Ian Kinsler behind him — has been the difference.
Although Kinsler is a Gold Glove-caliber defender, the rest of his infield and outfield are mediocre at best. The truth is, Porcello has become something special.
Nobody in the majors has exceeded his 15 wins, and neither Verlander nor Scherzer has had more than two complete game shutouts in one season. Scherzer has just one in his career, and that came this year.
Porcello has been the cream rising to the top this season.