Porcello pitches 4 scoreless, Tigers beat Rays 9-6

LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) As good as Rick Porcello was last year for the Detroit Tigers, he thinks he’s a better pitcher in 2010.

So far, the results back that up.

On Sunday, the 21-year-old right-hander, who won 14 games in 2009 as a rookie, threw four scoreless innings in a 9-6 win over Tampa Bay.

Porcello has yet to allow a run in nine exhibition innings over three appearances.

“I felt pretty good,” Porcello said. “I’m doing a better job of getting ahead. I’m trying to get a good mix of pitches in there and keep them off-balance.”

Porcello faced 15 batters, giving up two hits while striking out one and walking two in an efficient, if not overpowering effort.

He allowed a leadoff single to Rays right fielder Sean Rodriguez, but after striking out center fielder B.J. Upton, picked off Rodriguez at first. Second baseman Willy Aybar, who had the Rays’ only other hit off Porcello, reached second on a second-inning blooper to left.

“No. 1, he’s got really good stuff,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said of Porcello. “No. 2, he’s got real good poise. No. 3, he’s never satisfied. He wants to continue to work at it. He’s got a lot of ability.”

But, Leyland noted, Porcello has to “keep working, keep improving.”

Rays starter Jeff Niemann also pitched well, allowing three hits and one earned run in 3 2/3 innings while striking out six.

“That was two good-looking young starting pitchers,” Leyland said.

Niemann struck out all three batters in the second.

“I was just trying to break in the breaking stuff as we get deeper into counts and deeper into games,” Niemann said. “Earlier, I was just throwing fastballs and they were hitting them pretty good. I started spinning a few and getting the hitters to respect off-speed stuff.”

Tigers rookie Austin Jackson, who started in center field, tripled twice and was 3 for 4 with three runs to lead the Detroit offense, which had 12 hits off five Tampa Bay pitchers.

Jackson is batting .429 this spring.

Joel Zumaya, who gave up one earned run in two-thirds of an inning, got the win for Detroit. Robbie Weinhardt earned the save.

Joe Bateman (one inning, two earned runs) took the loss.

Catcher John Jaso, Rodriguez and left fielder Justin Ruggiano each homered for Tampa Bay and each had two hits.

NOTES: Leyland, as he has done often this preseason, re-emphasized that “filling out the (starting) rotation” continues to be his top priority. Thus far, he likes what he has seen, both on and off the field, from veteran pitchers Jeremy Bonderman, Armando Galarraga, Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis, each of whom is battling for a spot: “They’ve done a good job handling what could be a touchy situation,” Leyland said. … Of a Rays defense he expects to be a strength in 2010, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said, “I think we have people all over the field capable of winning Gold Gloves.” The Rays committed two errors Sunday. … Sunday’s attendance (9,671) was the fourth-largest in Joker Marchant Stadium history.

Updated March 14, 2010