Rick Porcello Ready for His Encore

After a Cy Young season, the NJ-bred pitcher just wants to play his game.

Breakout star Rick Porcello fires a pitch last season for the Boston Red Sox.
Breakout star Rick Porcello fires a pitch last season for the Boston Red Sox.
Photo by Daniel Kucin Jr./Icon Sportswire/Newscom

Ten springs ago, Rick Porcello was a 6-foot-5 right-hander who threw mitt-popping 100-mph fastballs at Seton Hall Prep in West Orange. In those days, part of the baseball field overlapped with the school’s football field. It was well-worn and often muddy. Porcello remembers fielding ground balls in a plowed parking lot at practices after a snowstorm.

Porcello is now a 28-year-old pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. This spring, he will enter his ninth major-league campaign as the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, an honor bestowed upon the league’s best pitcher. The award was well deserved. Porcello won 22 games and lost just four in 2016, a dramatic turnaround from the prior year. It will be a tough season to top, but Porcello is relishing the restart, as he did when he pitched during those short seasons at Prep.

“Mentally, I was always ready to go once baseball season rolled around,” he says.

Porcello was born in Morristown and grew up in Chester, where he joined the youth baseball program and played as many other sports as he could. Playing multiple sports, he says, “helps you more as an athlete instead of a robot who only knows how to do baseball-specific things. I actually thought it was a benefit.”

He also saw a benefit—perhaps paying off now—in not pitching year-round. “You need, especially at that age, to get some rest.”

Once he was ready for high school, Porcello enrolled at Seton Hall Prep, 45 minutes from Chester. He was drawn by coach Mike Sheppard Jr.,  who has developed one of New Jersey’s premier scholastic baseball programs.

It paid off. The Detroit Tigers made Porcello a first-round draft choice in 2007. He made the Tigers’ big-league squad in 2009 at age 20, but was traded to the Red Sox in December 2014. He had won 76 games in six seasons with the Detroit team, but his first season in Boston went poorly, with Porcello compiling a 9-15 record and spending time on the disabled list with triceps soreness and inflammation.

To make matters worse, Boston had signed Porcello to a four-year contract extension for an astounding $82.5 million in spring 2015. As the season wore on and Porcello struggled to win, the deal was widely panned in baseball-mad Beantown. Then Porcello won his first five starts in 2016 and was 11-2 at the All-Star Break in July. He never let up, winning three of his last five starts to help the Red Sox make the playoffs.

“It was just getting into a different frame of mind,” Porcello says of the 2016 season. “Not letting too much bother me. Keeping to my game plan. It’s kind of the basis of it. I just tried to do simple things better. As the season unfolded, I was able to gain momentum and a lot of confidence. There were certain things that were just really working for me. I was able to elevate my fastball a little bit more, which really helped me to get out of some jams I had in the past.”

A year ago, Porcello donated $1 million to Seton Hall Prep for a baseball field at the new Kelly Athletic Complex not far from campus. The new diamond will have artificial turf to withstand harsh weather. There will be no more wintertime practices on a parking lot.

Porcello is primed for another big season with the Red Sox, but says he will not focus on matching last year’s achievements. That’s not his game. “I want to go out there and do the things I can control,” he says, “which is to prepare for every fifth day, when I’m out on the mound.”

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