When Orioles starter Chris Tillman left Sunday’s game against the Nationals, he had surrendered just one earned run. It was the fourth time in five starts and the fifth time this season that the 23-year-old right-hander had allowed one run or fewer, but he labored all afternoon and could only give the Orioles five innings.
That has been a reoccurring theme for Tillman as he continues to develop at the major-league level.
He has given up two earned runs total in his past three starts, lowering his ERA from 7.16 on May 5 to 4.95. But he has made just three quality starts in 2011 -- quality starts are earned when a starter goes at least six innings and allows three or fewer earned runs -- a trend that has played a role in the taxation the Orioles bullpen.
Led by Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta with seven apiece, the Orioles have 25 quality starts in 45 opportunities, which puts them right smack in the middle of the major-league pack.
The Phillies’ starters lead the majors with 33.
It’s not all Tillman’s fault -- Brad Bergesen has made only two quality starts -- but his inability to go deep brings to light the struggles of the entire rotation. The Orioles bullpen has pitched 154 innings this season, the third-highest total in baseball, and its 5.38 ERA ranks 29th among major-league bullpens.
The return of Brian Matusz should help in this area. He might be the team’s best starter and his presence will mean that Tillman or Bergesen will be relegated to the bullpen or the minors.
Despite his high pitch counts and early exits, Tillman deserves to stick around. He has gotten himself into plenty of jams, but he deserves kudos for limiting the damage like he did in Sunday’s 2-1 win. His ceiling is also much higher than that of Bergesen, and he has nothing left to learn if he is returned to Triple-A Norfolk.
"He should have been able to go deeper in that game," Showalter said. "I thought, stuffwise, he was the full package. He had the cutter more like a slider today; he got some outs with it. He's got some deception. It's just [that his] fastball velocity fluctuates a lot. I'd just like to see him take that stuff deeper in the game. But that's the challenge [for] most young pitchers."
That’s certainly been the challenge for Showalter’s young rotation -- collectively speaking -- so far, and the Orioles must overcome it to hang around in the competitive AL East until September.