Chris Tillman finds groove against his former team in victory
Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman watches from the dugout in the 8th inning against the Mariners. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / August 6, 2012)
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He was facing the Seattle Mariners, the team that traded him away in 2008; his Orioles are in a surprising pennant race; his fellow starters had just strung together three impressive outings and, in his last start, he got bashed for five runs in the first inning before settling in.
Tillman, though, said none of that is fueling him. He’s been up and down on the Norfolk shuttle so often all he wants to do is keep pitching like he belongs in Baltimore. No extra motivation needed.
He did that again in a 3-1 victory over the Mariners in which Tillman took a perfect game into the fourth, a no-hitter into the fifth and a shutout into the eighth. It was his fourth consecutive victory; his ERA is now down to 2.38.
“It feels good. I feel like I put a lot of work in in the off-season and carried it into the season and spring training and what not. I feel like it's starting to pay off here, and we're not done,” said Tillman (5-1). “We have a long way to go. We’ve got a lot of season left and we've got to keep working until we're done.”
Kicking off a 10-game homestand, their longest of the season, the second-place Orioles (58-51) have won six of eight and have continued a recent stretch of sublime pitching. Monday was the fourth straight game in which they have allowed two runs or fewer – and it was nearly the first time the Orioles had posted three consecutive shutouts since they did it five times to end the 1995 season.
Tillman, who walked off to a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 21,184, lost the shutout bid in the eighth when Munenori Kawasaki singled home Eric Thames. It was the first time the opposition had scored against the Orioles since Friday’s sixth inning, when Tampa Bay’s Desmond Jennings hit a solo homer against Tommy Hunter. The string of 28 scoreless innings was the Orioles longest since posting 30 from Aug. 27-31, 2010.
Tillman began his night with a perfect inning – which normally wouldn’t be cause for celebration. But the lanky right-hander has struggled in opening frames this season. Thirteen of his 17 runs allowed have come in the first, including five on Tuesday in Yankee Stadium.
"Yeah, it's big,” Tillman said of his scoreless first. “I went out with the mindset of one inning at a time. It has been kind of a downfall for me, but I knew what I needed to do to get through it and I made some pitches.”
Orioles manager Buck Showalter isn’t ready to coronate Tillman yet. He has seen the 24-year-old be good at the big-league level in the past and then falter. It’s about maintaining consistency, doing it start after start that will impress the veteran skipper.
“We'll see what his next start brings,” Showalter said. “It's an ongoing proving ground. He knows that. I've said many times, his make-up and mentality will be an asset for him.”
On Monday, Tillman attacked the strike zone with four pitches – including an effective changeup and two-seam fastball and a four-seamer that sat in the low-90s, a tick lower than usual -- walking just one batter and throwing 68 of his 99 pitches for strikes. He gave up just five hits and one run in 7 1/3 innings while striking out five.
"When he can work off four (pitches), it’s going to give him a chance to succeed,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “Tillman has the right attitude. He doesn’t think too much. He keeps moving forward. He keeps working and trying to improve.”
The Orioles offense didn’t do much against lefty Jason Vargas, whom the Orioles inquired about during the trade deadline, but were turned away. But, with Tillman cruising, they didn’t have to.
Vargas (12-8) lasted eight innings, and only allowed runs in the second, giving up a Mark Reynolds’ RBI double and a two-run homer to Nick Markakis, his 11th of the season.
Reynolds, who had four hits in six games on the road trip, had three hits Monday, including two doubles. He picked up a single when Kawasaki failed to see a pop-up to short left field.
"I'm not relieved,” said Reynolds, who is hitting .212 on the season. “It's nice to see some results, but it's just one night. I've got to keep doing it. If we want to go where we want to go, I've got to contribute. Tonight was just one night.”
Reynolds also made a key defensive play, cutting off Adam Jones’ throw in the eighth and sending a perfect toss to second to stop Kawasaki from turning his RBI hit into a double.
“I feel like if I have a bad night at the plate, I can help us out defensively,” Reynolds said. “Been working hard over there, too, and whatever anyone else does, if we're struggling offensively, I'm able to contribute defensively. Tonight, I was able to put both of them together.”
Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson (33rd save) combined to get the final five outs and preserve the win for Tillman, who is now 3-0 with a 0.87 ERA in three starts against the club who traded him, Jones and three others to the Orioles in 2008.
That’s no longer on his mind, Tillman says.
“No, not anymore,” he said. “I kind of got over that after that '08 season when I came over here. Just another team to go out there and give my team a chance to win.”
What is important is showing that he can pitch effectively and consistently in the majors.
“He’s always trusted himself and what I’m putting down,” Wieters said. “That’s the good thing about him. Win or lose he is going out there and believes in what he is doing.”