Two springs ago, Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman was desperately trying to prove he could pitch in the major leagues. Last year at this time, he was attempting to show he was healthy and wasn’t a fluke.
And this March?
“Any time you get the chance to get that kind of opportunity it’s a big deal,” Tillman said of being named the club’s Opening Day starter. “Number one, it’s an honor, it’s exciting. At the same time, it’s important for the team to get us started in the right direction, the season going the right way. I think we are all just excited to get this thing going. “
Orioles manager Buck Showalter made the official announcement Monday afternoon: The 25-year-old from Southern California will become the club’s fifth Opening Day starter in five years, joining Jason Hammel (2013), Jake Arrieta (2012), Jeremy Guthrie (2011) and Kevin Millwood (2010). Tillman is the club’s youngest Opening Day starter since Mike Mussina in 1994.
Tillman said the honor wasn’t something on which he had been focusing.
“Not really. Not at all, to tell you the truth,” Tillman said. “Like I’ve said since Day 1, we’ve got five guys in here capable of doing it.”
When Showalter told his pitcher the news Monday, the manager said he received a one-word response: “Thanks.”
“But he's one of those guys who walks out of here and, trust me, he gets it. One thing I got is his face got a little different color,” Showalter said. “He’s very unassuming. He doesn't assume anything. He's sincere. Now, if I had said 'fifth [starter],' I don't know if he would have said anything. He might not have said anything.”
Showalter admitted he also considered veteran right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, who will instead pitch the second game of the season April 2 against the Red Sox.
Showalter has not named the rest of his rotation, but it likely will be Wei-Yin Chen starting the third game versus Boston and Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris pitching the first road games against the Detroit Tigers.
Jimenez, who was signed in mid-February, is still trying to get caught up with innings this spring.
“It was because of the late start,” that Jimenez was ruled out for Opening Day, Showalter said. “I’m hoping in the future it gets harder and harder to pick the one.”
Tillman made it easy on Showalter.
He made an extraordinary jump in two calendar years, going from a starter on the bubble who couldn’t crack the Opening Day roster in 2012 to the top assignment this year.
Tillman’s numbers explain that ascension. He has won 25 of his last 35 decisions since halfway through the 2012 season. Last year, he was 16-7 with a 3.71 ERA in 33 starts and became the first Orioles’ starting pitcher to be selected for the American League All-Star team since Mussina in 1999.
He said he occasionally thinks about how far he has come in such a short time.
“I do sometimes, more so in the offseason when I have time to think about it,” Tillman said. “It's kind of cool to sit back and be able to dwell on what happened during the season.”
With 206 1/3 innings in 2013, Tillman became just the fifth Orioles pitcher to reach the 200-inning milestone in a season since 2001. Because he had been dealing with a minor injury, he actually didn’t pitch until the fifth game of the season last year.
He said this one may be a little different, because of the hoopla that surrounds the first game of a new season.
“All the hype of Opening Day, yeah,” he said. “[But] whether you're sitting in the dugout or pitching, it's the same thing. There's pressure for everyone. I've been in the dugout, and I've been more nervous watching than being a part of it. It's just a matter of getting the team going in the right direction. I think it's important.”
Showalter said he believes that those who have watched Tillman over the years always thought he could one day lead a staff.
It’s why the Seattle Mariners drafted him in the second round out of high school in 2006. And why the Orioles and then-team president Andy MacPhail made him a key piece of the 2008 trade that sent lefty Erik Bedard to the Mariners.
“People thought this might be where he'd land, and you see it physically, and you see the way he carries himself, this is part of the evolution and why people in player development project players,” Showalter said. “There are things about Chris you can't put on paper.”