DETROIT -- Chris Tillman isn't going to admit it, but his progression into staff ace took another step Sunday afternoon when he outdueled the Detroit Tigers' Justin Verlander and halted the Orioles' four-game losing streak.
“He’s definitely working his way up to that [ace] status,” Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis said. “When he came over here in a trade [in 2008], it’s night and day to where he was then to now. He’s learning how to pitch. He’s learning how to attack the zone. He’s got confidence on the mound. And when you got confidence and talent, it takes you a long way.”
Tillman was fantastic Sunday, allowing just a home run by Torii Hunter and four other hits over 8 1/3 innings in the Orioles' 3-1 victory. Tying his career-high for longest start, Tillman walked only one and struck out five -- including Hunter on a reach-back, 94-mph fastball to end the eighth inning.
It was a Verlander-like effort against the Tigers' ace, the 2011 American League Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player.
“A lot of people see Verlander falling on their day and give a ‘Woe is me,’ ” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Tilly is just the opposite. He thinks that’s a chance for me to really be there when the team needs me against some pretty tough odds.”
The Orioles (2-4) sorely needed Tillman’s performance. They hadn’t won since Opening Day. They hadn’t had a quality start throughout the rotation’s first turn. They were about to swept by the previously undefeated Tigers (4-1) before flying to New York for another challenging series.
“Any time you get a win is important, especially the way we started the series,” said Tillman, who picked up his first victory this season after winning 16 games in 2013.
The 25-year-old came close to a career milestone: His first nine-inning complete game. With 101 pitches through eight innings, Showalter decided to send Tillman out for the ninth. He retired two-time reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera on a groundout before giving up a double to Victor Martinez. Showalter then pulled Tillman, and closer Tommy Hunter picked up two quick outs for his second save in as many tries.
How badly did Tillman want the complete game?
“Badly,” he said, with a wry smile. “Let’s just say that.”
The only run Tillman allowed came in the fourth, when Torii Hunter broke up a perfect game and a shutout with his third homer in three games. Tillman had retired the first 10 batters before Hunter stepped to the plate.
Hunter was 6-for-12 with seven RBIs in the series and became the first opposing player to hit a home run in three straight games against the Orioles since the Seattle Mariners' Mike Morse in 2013.
Tillman’s splendid start was aided by his club’s defense, including a tremendous play by second baseman Steve Lombardozzi in the second.
Lombardozzi had to range far to his right on a ground ball, jumped in the air and threw to first baseman Chris Davis, who did a near split to get the speedy Austin Jackson at first base.
“[Defense] won’t go overlooked because it is stressed so much by the players,” Showalter said. “You talk about culture. Lombo had a great play against someone who runs as good as anybody in Jackson.”
With a one-run game on the line in the bottom of the eighth, Orioles outfielders made back-to-back strong efforts on defense. Left fielder David Lough made a nice sliding catch on a ball that looked like it would drop in for a single before Markakis made a diving snag of a sinking liner in right field on the next play.
“Huge, huge,” Tillman said of the importance of the two catches in the eighth. “They pumped me up a little bit. Both of them. First left, then right. Those are the kind of things that can put momentum in the other dugout.”
As good as Tillman was Sunday, he was matched virtually pitch for pitch by Verlander, who allowed two runs, five hits and two walks through eight innings. Verlander (0-1) held the Orioles scoreless through five until Nelson Cruz’s two-out double scored Adam Jones.
Verlander retired five more Orioles before Markakis sliced a triple into the right-field corner in the top of the eighth. Jones then fouled off four pitches until lifting a 2-2 slider to deep left to score Markakis.
“That’s a stick-your-nose-in-there against one of the best guys who is coming at you full metal jacket,” Showalter said. “Adam would be the first to tell you, sometimes he’ll win, sometimes Verlander will win.”
Matt Wieters made it 3-1 in the ninth with his first home run of the season -- and the club’s first not hit by Cruz.
Afterward, the Orioles somewhat downplayed the need to beat Verlander and avoid the sweep; it is only the sixth game of a 162-game season, after all.
But there’s no question they wanted to head to Yankee Stadium with a win and not a five-game losing streak -- no matter what the calendar shows.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. You want to get off to a good start, but when you are facing teams like the [Boston] Red Sox, and Detroit, and now, New York, anything you can get is a positive and is good,” Markakis said. “It’s not the way we want to start, but to come out here and get a win against that guy and a team like this was big.”
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