BALTIMORE -- Rick Porcello was the king of precision at Camden Yards on Monday night, undeterred by one of baseball's most potent lineups and unfazed when he was issued a warning after hitting Manny Machado with a pitch in the fourth inning.
For weeks now, Porcello has had razor-sharp command and focus. But in leading the Red Sox to a complete-game 5-2 victory over the Orioles in the opener of a four-game showdown, the sinkerballer took it to another level.
Porcello (21-4, 3.08 ERA) went the distance in just 88 pitches, allowing him to become the first pitcher in the Majors this season to go nine innings in less than 90 pitches.
After suffering a 1-0 loss to Baltimore just five days ago, Porcello had a battle plan in his mind that would enable him to give Boston's entire bullpen the night off this time.
"We knew coming into it that they're going to be aggressive," Porcello said. "We just saw them five days ago and that's the way they've been all year. So we're just trying to use that aggressiveness to our advantage, go beyond the strike zone. Mix up fastballs, sinkers and four-seamers. Just keep them off-balance."
The win gave the Red Sox a season-high lead of four games over Baltimore in the American League East with 12 games left.
Over the last 30 years of Red Sox games, Porcello pitched the third most efficient nine-inning performance. Aaron Cook needed just 81 pitches to beat the Mariners at Safeco Field on June 29, 2012. Roger Clemens fired a one-hit, 86-pitch shutout at Fenway against the Indians on Sept. 10, 1988.
"Rick Porcello was outstanding," said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "He threw a high number of first-pitch strikes. He was able to induce ground balls. He elevated at appropriate times. He had four pitches working for strikes tonight. In complete command for this one."
Machado, however, wasn't amused when Porcello drilled him. Porcello was perhaps more perturbed because he had a perfect game in progress. It was a curious time for a warning to be issued to both sides.
"It's September baseball," said Porcello. "Obviously emotions are running high. Nobody wants to get hit by a pitch, that's why I completely understand [Machado's reaction]. I wouldn't like it if I was up there and I got hit. At the same time, there's absolutely no reason why I would hit him right there, especially with Mark Trumbo standing on deck. I mean, he's hitting missiles all over the ballpark off me. So I don't want to face him in a 2-0 game, especially when I got a perfect game going."
The hit batter was the only way Porcello gave up a free pass in this one. This was the 11th time in Porcello's 31 starts this season he didn't walk anyone. Remarkably, Porcello has walked two or fewer in all but two of his starts.
"It's just a matter of being able to repeat my delivery much more consistently," said Porcello. "I'm comfortable with everything that I'm doing. I feel good about attacking pretty much every hitter right now. I just want to continue throwing strikes."
In Monday's game, many of the strikes didn't actually cross home plate.
"I'm just trying to expand it beyond the spots where they want it," Porcello said. "A lot of those guys are just -- anything in the strike zone, they do a lot of damage with. So you know we're just trying to work just off the plate, both sides, change up speeds."
Porcello's candidacy for the AL's Cy Young Award is becoming very real.
In Porcello's last 11 starts, he's gone at least seven innings while giving up three runs or fewer. It is the longest such streak in the Majors this season.
"He was just throwing every pitch for a strike and keeping them off balance and working both sides of the plate," said Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts.
Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.