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Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Signs of progress personified by Porcello


BOSTON -- ADEINY HECHAVARRIA boasted a .235 batting average, .275 on-base percentage and a .347 slugging percentage in the second of the two Double-A seasons he spent with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Now he’s batting third for the Miami Marlins.

Consider that when gauging the lineup Rick Porcello was up against Wednesday in something of a pivotal start, and thus it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from an outing in which the Red Sox right-hander surrendered two runs over seven innings while snapping his seven-game losing streak. Entering Thursday, the Marlins had the fifth-most futile offense in baseball. And that’s despite having now-injured star Giancarlo Stanton for most of the first three months.

These fish tend to flounder in the batter’s box, so it’s probably foolish to put too much stock into the performance as a whole. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t another positive step for a team in the midst of a surge that’s now seen the Sox win nine of 12. And that doesn’t mean it was without some evidence of progress.

For that, look no further than the fourth inning — which had begun to look like so many failed frames for Porcello this season. Seven times allowing at least three runs in an inning, the pitcher has been so perilously prone to big rallies that when the worst inning of each of his 17 starts are totaled up, it represents 42 of the 67 runs scored against him in 2015. That’s an average of 2.47 runs per inning, and nearly nine times worse than he’s been (at 0.28 runs per) over the 88 other frames in which he’s appeared.

The wheels tend to fall off quicker than Porcello can get things tightened up again, and such seemed to be the case Wednesday. Half an inning after a David Ortiz homer staked him to a four-run lead, the righty retired the leadoff man uneventfully, but then proceeded to surrender five consecutive singles.

Suddenly the lead had been halved. The bases were loaded. Justin Masterson was heating, purposefully, in the Boston bullpen. And the Marlins — limited as they are offensively — had the best part of their lineup due.

Third baseman Pablo Sandoval helped his pitcher clear the first part of the threat, making a nice play to prevent National League hits leader Dee Gordon from slapping a safety through the left side, then throwing home to force the lead runner. But even with two outs Porcello still had to get Marlins left fielder Christian Yelich.

Yelich is a foundation piece in Miami who has rated among baseball’s 20 best hitters over the past month, and top 10 best over the past two weeks — when, entering Thursday, he’d reached base in better than half his plate appearances.

Porcello got ahead early, then evened the count at 2-2, with a couple of good curveballs that Yelich took for strikes. At that point he summoned catcher Ryan Hanigan to the mound and after a brief conversation the decision was made to attack the hitter with a fastball under his hands. They trusted Porcello’s two-seamer.

If it ran too far inside, it would’ve likely forced the count full in a predicament already packed with pressure. If it caught too much of the middle of the plate, it could’ve been just the type of meatball Yelich has been devouring of late.

But, instead, it was spotted precisely where Porcello and Hanigan wanted it. Yelich chopped one over the mound, and before it reached his infielders, Porcello intercepted it with an athletic, backhanded stab. He then flipped the ball to first and excitedly headed for the dugout having escaped a jam and protected a lead. Two things he hasn’t done nearly enough during his first season with the Sox.

Progress.

“It felt great,” Porcello told reporters afterward, “to contribute in a positive way, you know. Keep our streak going.”

The streak is now at four, a season-long for the Sox, who before Wednesday were the only major league team that hadn’t won more than three in a row. It improved their record to 41-45 and kept them within 5½ games of the first-place Yankees. It also adds some intrigue to the three-game visit the Bronx Bombers will make to Boston this weekend.

The Sox feel good going into the series, not only because of the way they’ve been playing, but because of the way their pitching is aligned. They’ll confront the Yanks with Clay Buchholz tonight, Eduardo Rodriguez on Saturday, then Wade Miley on Sunday. That’s currently the cream of their rotation.

Had Porcello let things get away from him Wednesday, there would’ve been questions about whether he’d still be in that same rotation coming out of the All-Star break. The 26-year-old says he never doubted whether he’d take his next turn, and praised the coaching staff for its support through his prolonged struggles, but there certainly would’ve at least been a decision to make had he been knocked out without finishing four innings against the Marlins.

There’s still plenty of work to be done, and those questions could easily arise again. But Porcello instantly built on his victory over Yelich by retiring all six hitters he faced afterward, and next he’ll get another chance to prove himself, likely against the Angels.

Los Angeles ranks in the middle of the pack among AL teams offensively, so again, it won’t be the stiffest of tests. But their No. 3 hitter — the esteemed Mike Trout — verifies that they’ll be a more telling indicator than was six OK innings against Hechavarria’s Marlins.

And so if Porcello can merely stay competitive, make pitches and find his way out of trouble, like he did in the big moment Wednesday, it should be good enough for the Sox. At least as another sign of progress.

“There’s probably three or four of those opportunities that come up, and not only did he make the pitch, but he makes a heck of a defensive play to prevent a potential two-run single going through the middle,” manager John Farrell said. “I thought he kept the game under control and for the most part minimized the mistakes that have kind of cropped up over the stretch of games in which he’s pitched.”



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Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.

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