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After 149 big league starts, Rick Porcello finally is one of the big four

The Tigers' right-hander from New Jersey is the oldest 25-year-old in the world.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On October 6, 2009, it seemed like Ricky Porcello was the oldest 20-year-old in the world. That's because he was.

He was also the loneliest.

A man can't hide on the pitcher's mound. No matter how much he might wish the hill would cave in and swallow him up with it, the pitcher too often lives that bad dream---the one where you're naked, for the whole world to see.

Porcello was 20 when his manager, Jim Leyland, handed him the baseball in the most important game of the 2009 season---the notorious Game 163 inside the House of Horrors, a.k.a. the Metrodome in Minneapolis, to decide the winner of the American League Central Division crown.

It was a situation made for the Koufaxes and the Gibsons of the world. Jack Morris would have drooled. Porcello even had a teammate---Justin Verlander---who was infinitely more suited for the job at hand.

But Ricky Porcello?

The right-hander from New Jersey was just over two years out of high school. Most pitchers his age were traipsing through the bushes of the minor leagues.

But in the frantic final week of the season, Leyland didn't have the luxury of setting his starting rotation up for a Game 163. He used his ace, Verlander, in Game 162, mostly to make sure there would be a one-game playoff with the streaking Minnesota Twins to begin with.

With no other veteran starter having enough rest, it fell upon Porcello to take the mound in the Metrodome---the belly of the beast---and slow down the Twins.

It defied baseball logic, but Leyland had no choice. You start a 20-year-old pitcher in a one-game playoff, in a place as raucous as the Metrodome, and you're figuring on parading in relievers like members of the USC marching band.

Porcello was the oldest 20-year-old in the world, and the loneliest, when he stared down the Twins in their own building---a squad that had won 16 of its last 20 games to force the playoff with the Detroit Tigers.

It wasn't logical. But it was necessary.

Porcello made the Tigers roster out of spring training in 2009, less than two years after being drafted out of Seton Hall Prep School in West Orange, New Jersey. After the All-Star break, the Tigers shut Porcello down, giving him 16 days between starts, to help save his tender arm---to get him ready in case they needed him to pitch a big game.

To be fair to Leyland, Porcello was pitching pretty well leading up to Game 163. In his previous two starts combined, the right-hander pitched 11.1 innings and surrendered just two runs.

So there Porcello was, on the mound in the Dome, in front of 54,000-plus pairs of leather lungs, tasked with giving the Tigers a shot at winning the game and the division pennant.

It was a situation built for the game's all-time greats, not for one of its all-time youngest.

All Porcello did that day was pitch into the sixth inning, give up four measly hits and one earned run, and strike out eight Twins. It wasn't enough to win, but it didn't lose the game for the Tigers, either.

Porcello likely grew up more in that one-game playoff than he had in the entire season's worth of starts combined.

Ricky Porcello, once the world's oldest 20-year-old, is being asked to grow up once again.

Porcello, after his day in the spotlight in Game 163 in 2009, sank back to where he truly belonged---that of the Tigers' fifth starter. It's a role he's fulfilled for the past five seasons.

Now, after 149 big league starts as the Tigers' fifth wheel, Porcello is being asked to move up a spot.

Doug Fister---one of the Tigers' Big Four starters---is gone, traded to Washington in a much-ballyhooed deal that, no matter how much GM Dave Dombrowski tries to explain it away, continues to chafe the fan base.

The Fister trade has given Porcello a chance to graduate from fifth starter to one of the Big Four, after Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. Lefty Drew Smyly figures to slot in behind Porcello this season.

No longer will Porcello be viewed as The Guy Who Pitches After the Big Four. He won't be voted Most Likely to be Skipped.

This is the Tigers' chance to see what their return is on the 149-start investment the team has made in the kid from Jersey.

There aren't too many 25-year-olds with nearly 150 big league starts. There never is, in any given year. Porcello, in that regard, is a jewel.

But he's been a rough-hewn jewel. We have seen glimpses of what Ricky Porcello can be, but much of his potential always seems to be obscured by continuing growing pains and overshadowed by his fellow starters.

Porcello is 25. Again, many pitchers his age have the minor leagues still appearing large in their rearview mirrors. Porcello, on the other hand, is a grizzled veteran.

He's no longer the oldest 20-year-old in the world. Now he's the oldest 25-year-old.

Tigers fans are still ticked off about the Fister trade. If Ricky Porcello puts those 149 starts to good use in 2014, a certain general manager is off the hook.