Right-hander Chris Tillman used to routinely throw himself in front of Orioles losing streaks, but it has been a while.
Since returning from the disabled list in early May, he has struggled with his command and — as often as not — failed to pitch more than five innings for a team that has been desperate to get deeper into games.
Monday night, Tillman delivered his best performance of the year in the Orioles’ 3-1 victory over the Texas Rangers, pitching six innings and allowing just a run on two hits before turning a tight game over to the bullpen in the opener of a four-game series before an announced 14,922 at Oriole Park.
That was no easy task, considering that the Rangers arrived in Baltimore ranked third in the American League with an average of nearly five runs per game, and Tillman still had a little left. He could have come out for the seventh inning after throwing only 95 pitches, but manager Buck Showalter decided to bring on left-handed reliever Richard Bleier to match up against the lefty hitters at the bottom of the Texas lineup.
“I almost took him out after five,” Showalter said. “I really wanted him to come out with some positive feelings about it. We were going to go hitter-to-hitter with him in the sixth. You don’t go normal with him after that much time off, but hopefully he and the rest of the staff can build on that, because that’s the type of pitching we’re going to need.”
Tillman, who won 16 games last year before the onset of his lingering shoulder injury, suffered through a tough June before delivering a solid start June 30 and then missing a start to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. He displayed good velocity, but the long layoff probably cost him some command. He walked four and struck out three.
“It’s getting there,” Tillman said. “It’s a process. It’s a never-ending process to tell the truth. As long as you stay true to who you are and focus on that process, I feel like in the end it always works out. … You’ve got to pay your dues, keep grinding and keep getting better.”
The Rangers’ only run against Tillman came in the second inning, and he probably was kicking himself for the two-out walk that kept the inning alive long enough for catcher Jonathan Lucroy to line a double into the gap in right-center to give the Rangers the lead.
The Orioles tied the game — and took Tillman off the hook — in the bottom of the sixth inning when Adam Jones drew a one-out walk from Texas starter Andrew Cashner and Manny Machado followed with a single to center that sent Jones to third. Jonathan Schoop followed with a sacrifice fly to left that barely scored Jones ahead of a strong throw by right fielder Nomar Mazara.
Right fielder Seth Smith broke the tie with two outs in the bottom of the seventh with a long solo home run to straightaway center and the Orioles added another run in that inning on an RBI single by shortstop Rubén Tejada.
Bleier was credited with his second victory of the year after a scoreless inning that dropped his ERA to 1.34. Mychal Givens pitched a scoreless eighth, and Brad Brach earned his 16th save with a scoreless ninth.
Orioles hitters tried to get things going in the early innings, but couldn’t get out of their own way. Welington Castillo led off the third inning with a sharp single to right, only to be erased when Tejada grounded into a routine double play. Machado opened the next inning with a hit and Schoop wasted little time bouncing into a double play.
Through the first five innings, the batters who finished the inning after each of four Orioles base runners combined to go 0-for-8 and make 10 outs.
Tillman (1-5) remains winless since his first start of the season May 7, when he pitched five scoreless innings against the Chicago White Sox. He delivered a quality start his third time out but did not qualify for the win and had another quality start in his sixth start against the Boston Red Sox and ended up with a loss. His reward for Monday night’s strong performance was a reduction in his ERA from 7.90 to 7.20.