Porcello’s pitching propels Tigers to first place

DETROIT — It’s not just that the Tigers are back in first place, it’s how they’ve gotten there that’s truly exciting.

When the season started and expectations were that the Tigers would run away with the Central Division, it’s no wonder that fans started jumping off the bandwagon in droves when they floundered into third place and couldn’t even reach the .500 mark.

But manager Jim Leyland didn’t change the message and he didn’t overreact.

Similarly, Leyland was not jumping up and down because the Tigers beat the Chicago White Sox Saturday in front of another sellout crowd at Comerica Park, 7-1, taking over first place in the division by a half-game.

“It’s a battle just to play good, that’s all I care about,” Leyland said. “I don’t know if playing good’s going to get us to first, or not. I can’t answer that. But I just want this team to play good, play good, solid baseball, hopefully the rest of the year, entertain the fans, like we have on this homestand up to this point — and if we can do that, I’ll be satisfied.”

Leyland was beyond satisfied with starter Rick Porcello.

Porcello reached the ninth inning, holding the White Sox to one run on five hits while striking out four. Leyland gave him a chance to finish the game but took him out once he let the first two batters reach.

“He was terrific today,” Leyland said. “He was going to have to be, going against who we were facing. (Chris) Sale’s a really good-looking pitcher, one of the best in the league, and Rick was going to have to be stingy today for us to win this game. And he was more than that. He did great.”

The fans gave Porcello (7-5, 4.40) a standing ovation when he left the game.

“I wasn’t really expecting it but it was awesome,” Porcello said. “I had chills going down my spine after that. It was actually almost a little bit hard to control my emotions there in the ninth because with the cheering going on, I was so excited to possibly finish the game.

“I’m just happy we got the win, that’s the most important thing. Hopefully we can stay in first place from here out.”

After Porcello gave up the one run in the fifth, his teammates immediately responded by taking the lead back in the bottom of the inning. Austin Jackson had a two-out, two-run double.

Then Brennan Boesch, who has been working with hitting coaches Lloyd McClendon and Toby Harrah on tracking the ball better, tracked a Sale offering for a three-run home run and a 5-1 lead in the sixth.

The impressive thing about it was the left-handed Sale had not allowed a lefty to hit a home run off him all year and only once in his career. And Boesch had struck out in his first two at-bats.

“I’ve had some games where I’ve had a couple strikeouts and then hit a home run so I just know that my game is to drive the ball and try to drive runs in,” Boesch said. “To worry about the first couple at-bats is just not productive for me or the team.”

In his last 17 games, Boesch is batting .333 with seven doubles, three home runs and 15 RBIs.

Jackson added two more runs in the eighth with a two-run single. His four RBIs matched a career best and gave him 44 for the season, one shy of his career high, set last year in 153 games.

The amazing thing about the runs the Tigers have scored in their recent successful stretch is they’ve mostly come with two outs. Since the All-Star break, 35 of their 48 runs (73 percent) have been scored with two outs.

“I know from my case if I have two outs and someone gets a big hit or something like that, that’s the dagger,” Porcello said. “But for us, putting up the runs we’ve been putting up and our offense playing the way they’ve been playing is really nice. We’ve put up runs on some tough pitchers and it’s really good to see. Hopefully we keep it going.”

According to STATS, LLC, before the All-Star break, the Tigers had scored just 129 of 387 runs (33 percent) with two out.

The Tigers, who followed the lead of Leyland, weren’t panicking when they were struggling.

“It starts on pitching and defense and right now we’re getting the pitching that we thought we would get all year and we’re scoring some big runs in some big innings,” Laird said. “But it’s all starting to come together and I knew this was in us.”

Boesch said the players understand why the fans were upset but they couldn’t get upset themselves because it’s such a long season.

“The fans pay money to see good baseball and we weren’t playing good baseball early on,” Boesch said. “They also want to see a championship team and championships aren’t won in April.

“So we stayed the course and we’re continuing to stay the course and this team knows that we’re going to be in there at the end.”