Tigers Look to Porcello to Repeat What Bonderman Accomplished in ’06 ALDS Clincher

Five years ago this week, the Tigers sent a young, often frustrating righthander to the mound in the fourth game of the American League Division Series.

With a win, no sure thing with the unpredictable starter, the Tigers would eliminate the Yankees and move on to the American League Championship Series against the Oakland A’s.

Twenty-three-year-old Jeremy Bonderman was the Tigers’ starter that chilly Saturday afternoon and he faced righty Jaret Wright, who’d gone 11-7 witha 4.49 ERA in 30 appearances (27 starts) for New York.

Tigers fans didn’t want to seem overconfident, but compared to the Yankee starters in the series’ first three games (Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson) Wright seemed like a notch above batting-practice quality.

That day, the Tigers staked Bonderman to a 3-0, second-inning lead on home runs by Magglio Ordonez and Craig Monroe. They tacked on five more runs by the end of the sixth. (Detroit chased Wright with two outs in the third after he’d surrendered four runs on five hits.) The late Cory
allowed three runs in his inning-and-a-third of work.

But at the start of the day, all eyes were on Bonderman. Could he handle the big stage, an elimination game against a New York lineup that Jim Leyland dubbed “Murderer’s Row and then Cano” and prevent a trip back to the Bronx for a decisive Game 5?

Could he ever.

All he did was no-hit the Yankees through five before Robinson Cano’s leadoff single in the sixth — after which he retired the next three in order.

Bonderman worked 8-1/3 innings throwing 99 pitches and allowed just five hits and two runs, walked a lone batter and struck out four. Jamie Walker recorded the final two outs of Detroit’s 8-3 win and the Tigers soon headed to Oakland.

Tonight the Tigers are in a eerily similar circumstance. Game 4 of the ALDS is nigh and the club’s hopes of avoiding a trip to New York rest on the almost-23-year-old Rick Porcello (he’ll be 23 on Dec. 27, the same age as Bonderman in 2006.)

That year Bonderman, in his fourth big-league season, finished 14-8 with a 4.08 ERA in a league-leading 34 starts. In 2011, Porcello, in his third season, finished 14-9 with a 4.75 ERA and made 31 starts.

In ’06, Bonderman threw 210 innings. This year, Porcello threw 182. Bonderman fanned 202 that season, Porcello 104 in ’11.

There’s no question that Bonderman and Porcello, despite their similarities at this point in their respective careers, are two different pitchers.
Bonderman relied on a firm fastball and a devastating slider. Of course, he was never able to command a third pitch — an annual Grapefruit League quest for him — and it frustrated at least three pitching coaches and two managers.

Porcello, on the other hand, has a moving fastball, a sinker, a changeup and curveball, making him a more complete pitcher, and one with a bright future.

So, should Tigers fans feel confident in Rick Porcello in a close-out game at Comerica Park against the American League’s finest lineup?

Absolutely. And here’s why.

In 2006, Jeremy Bonderman, like nearly every other player on that club, had no postseason experience. It was a concern that he would crumble under the pressure — particularly given his propensity to have disastrous first innings. But he didn’t.

Two years ago, Jim Leyland handed the ball to Porcello, then just 20 years old, in Game 163 — a one-game playoff to decide the American League
Central Division against the Twins. And he did not disappoint.

Porcello pitched five and 2/3 innings, scattered four hits, walked two and struck out eight. And he yielded just two runs in the most pressure-packed game of the season and many players’ careers.

Two years ago, by giving him the Game 163 start, the Tigers invested heavily in Porcello’s future. I think tonight the Tigers and their fans finally get the payoff from that miserable day in October 2009.

Can Porcello be as good tonight as Bonderman in ’06 or himself on ’09? With A.J. Burnett pitching for the Yankees, he might not need to be. But at least this time around Tigers fans know they have a starter with a more wicked repertoire than Bonderman, a skosh more experience and at least as much mental toughness. Anyone needing proof can re-visit his take down of the Red Sox’ Kevin Youkilis.

Let’s hope history does, in fact, show reruns.

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