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Laird launches a solo shot to left field

CHICAGO -- Nine games into the 2012 season, the vaunted Tigers rotation has finally gotten off the ground with a victory. The first one came from the pitcher who has done the best job of keeping the ball on the ground so far, two games into his fourth year.

In fact, after Sunday's 5-2 victory over the White Sox, Rick Porcello is the hottest pitcher Detroit has going not named Justin Verlander, who will try to build on the momentum Porcello built Monday night in Kansas City. Unlike Verlander, Porcello has yet to give up the big inning.

Through two starts, Porcello has induced 18 ground-ball outs, 11 of them Sunday on a warm, blustery afternoon when anything hit in the air had the potential to become an adventure. He has allowed just six fly balls, none of them after the second inning Sunday.

"He's throwing the ball real well," manager Jim Leyland said after winning the series finale. "He's got good life, and he's throwing the ball better."

Porcello has covered 14 2/3 innings in 191 pitches, an average of 13 pitches an inning that ranks nearly three full pitches less than his average over his previous three seasons. He worked 7 2/3 innings Sunday with just 99 pitches, something he has done just three times in his career.

He has thrown nearly two-thirds of his pitches for strikes. He not only didn't walk a White Sox hitter on Sunday, he reached just two three-ball counts among the 27 batters he faced.

To be fair, it's a small sample size. But add in the fact that Porcello carried this through Spring Training, quietly putting up stingy numbers across the Grapefruit League, and there's reason to hope that he's maturing into a solid sinkerball pitcher at age 23.

He'll still have his bumps, but maybe not as bumpy. More important, starts like this are going to carry a weight heavier than the sinker Porcello is throwing right now.

"He lost it for a little bit," Leyland said, "but for the most part, he's got one dominant pitch that makes people mishit the ball. When you've got a real good sinker, it looks good to hit it, but people mishit it. They mishit it a lot. That's what a sinkerball is."

For a Tigers lineup that was held in relative check again until the later innings, carried in large part by a home run and three hits from backup catcher and ninth hitter Gerald Laird, Porcello was the great equalizer. Porcello didn't need much run support to break Detroit's rotation out of its winless start after five victories in eight games from the bullpen.

Doubles down the right-field line from Paul Konerko in the second inning and Adam Dunn in the fourth, plus an Alexei Ramirez single in the fifth, comprised all the hits for Chicago until Dayan Viciedo's home run with two outs in the eighth ended Porcello's shutout bid.

In between were a slew of sinkers Porcello used to keep the White Sox from lifting anything in the air with authority. Five ground-ball outs were comebackers that he finished off. Four others were converted at third by Miguel Cabrera, including a slow roller he chased down to retire Ramirez in the second.

Laird used terms like "darting" and "diving" to describe Porcello's sinker. But he also credited Porcello's command of both sides of the plate, something he established last Tuesday against the Rays as well, and his better offspeed pitches.

"There were a lot of weak ground balls hit today, a lot of guys out front," Laird said. "That's just a credit to Ricky, throwing the ball in the zone and getting ahead of hitters a lot. And when he does fall behind, they know he's going to come at them in the zone.

"They're hitting the ball off the end of the bat and rolling over pitches and hitting the ball on the ground."

The vast majority of those outs came early in the count, which allowed Porcello to enter the eighth with 84 pitches. Another highlight play from Cabrera, this one a diving catch to his right, took a line drive and extra bases away from Kosuke Fukudome.

As it turned out, Cabrera's catch kept Viciedo to a solo homer. Eduardo Escobar's ensuing single brought the potential tying run to the plate with the top of the White Sox lineup coming up, ending Porcello's afternoon. Joaquin Benoit's four-pitch walk to Alejandro De Aza created more trouble before he struck out Brent Morel, and Jose Valverde finished off the ninth with help from insurance runs.

But without Porcello and that sinker, the Tigers probably wouldn't have won. As tough as Verlander's luck has been, Porcello deserved their first win as much as anyone.

"It's nice," he said. "Obviously, it's nice to have the life on [the sinker] and see the results that you want to get. More importantly, it's nice to be able to use it to get us wins."

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