Before Chris Tillman took the mound for his first Grapefruit League start Tuesday, Orioles manager Buck Showalter said that no matter the results of his outing, there was no question that this spring’s version of Tillman is much further ahead of the one that struggled throughout last season.
The Orioles have seen Tillman at his best — and last year at his worst — and they were convinced he was ready for a rebound season, in part because he spent the offseason working out at the team’s spring training facility in Sarasota.
But after a shaky Grapefruit League debut Tuesday afternoon against the Minnesota Twins, it was clear that Tillman must still make many more strides before being regular-season ready. After making his first two spring appearances in simulated games on the facility’s back fields — working his pitch count into the 60s while honing the feel for his pitches — he struggled against the Twins.
Tillman battled with his control throughout, walking six of the 14 batters he faced. He was unable to record an out in the third inning, forced from the game four batters into the frame after a bases-loaded walk to Jorge Polanco on his 62nd and final pitch of the afternoon.
“It’s what, his third outing?” Showalter said. “Command was obviously an issue. I don’t take a whole lot out of it right now other than that he got his pitch count where he needed to get it and we’ll look at it and [there’s] plenty of time to make the adjustments. I don’t find that encouraging or discouraging. I don’t really find it anything at this point. … It’s a part of the process. I’d like to see him have better results, but we’ve got a lot of confidence in Chris. I think he’s going to be there for us.”
Tillman said his struggles were a byproduct of missing low in the strike zone, which was a result of a heavy diet of two-seam fastballs, a pitch he used just 16.4 percent of the time last season. But it also appeared as though Tillman was struggling to repeat his delivery, battling to find his release point. His fastball was ranged from 87 to 90 mph on the Hammond Stadium radar gun.
“I really didn’t feel like I was fighting anything,” Tillman said. “I had a lot of misses down below the zone. It wasn’t in and out or gloveside, armside. It was more north and south, which you’d think would be an easy adjustment. But I kept missing down. When it’s down, they’re going to take more than when it’s elevated. I feel like there were a lot of guys waiting to see the ball up, and when they didn’t more times than not they took it.”
He overcame his control problems in his first two innings. A 4-6-3 double-play ball started on a diving play and glove flip from second baseman Engelb Vielma erased a leadoff walk to Brian Dozier. In the second inning, Tillman left the bases loaded by inducing an inning-ending groundout to third from Dozier.
Tillman wasn’t as lucky in the third inning. He stumbled off the mound running to cover the bag on Joe Mauer’s sharp grounder to first baseman Danny Valencia in the hole. Valencia’s throw was high and wide, but Mauer would have beaten Tillman to the bag anyway.
Miguel Sanó then roped a double to left, and Tillman walked Logan Morrison on six pitches to load the bases. After Tillman walked Polanco on four pitches to force in the game’s first run, he was done.
“I think for me, they really belted [just] one ball,” Tillman said. “They didn’t beat me. I beat myself by missing. It was the same miss, so I think making the adjustment and getting the ball more elevated, which is opposite of what you normally want. I think mixing in more four-seamers [will help]. I’m a four-seam guy anyway. I don’t know what I’m doing throwing that many two-seamers.”
Tillman didn’t dismiss the outing as just a Grapefruit League start, realizing that his late start makes it more important to see results right away.
“Every time out I want to do good, especially this late in spring,” Tillman said. “I know it’s my first one and everyone’s going to say, ‘I’m out there working on stuff.’ But that’s the problem with starting this late in spring. You’ve got to go out there trying to win. When they did swing, it was a lot of soft contact. I guess that’s the positive I’m going to take from this is there was a lot of soft contact, but I’ve just to get them to do that more as opposed to picking at the bottom of the zone, which isn’t me.”
Though he left trailing 1-0, he was charged with four runs as left-hander Donnie Hart allowed three inherited runners to score.
“Nothing [wrong] with how I felt [physically],” Tillman said. “I felt good. I would say I used my two-seamer a lot today, which was part of the reason I kept missing down, kind of taking it out of the zone below. But my four-seamer was better. It was about what it was in the sim game. I was able to get it in and out for strikes.”
Tillman has traditionally gone through some early-inning hiccups, but when he’s good, he gets through that and still manages to go deep into the game. But Tuesday, Tillman seemed to be battling with his delivery from the first batter.
Before last season, a recurrence of discomfort in his throwing shoulder slowed his offseason preparation and cost him his entire spring training. He didn’t pitch in a minor league rehabilitation game until mid-April, and his first major league start wasn’t until May 7. Once he returned, he struggled mightily, posting a 7.84 ERA in 24 games and going more than five innings in just seven of his 19 starts.
Despite the ugly pitching line Tuesday, Tillman echoed that he’s in a much better place physically than he was this time last year, when his lingering shoulder trouble prevented him from making a single Grapefruit League appearance.
“Yeah, it feels much better, routine-wise,” he said. ”It definitely does. After my last sim game, I went on a five-day [schedule]. That’s all starters, not just me. I think we’re starting to get into that feel where we’re getting things going and you have your own routine versus there’s a schedule for 25 guys with one thing one day and the rest of the guys doing it the next day. I’m starting to get into that routine, and it’s that time of the year.”
Showalter expressed optimism that Tillman — who was an anchor for the starting rotation over a four-year span before last season — will rebound in time.
“It’s not a week, it’s not 10 days, it’s two weeks,” Showalter said. “It won’t be perfect for any of our guys every time out. Today, it wasn’t a starting point — he’s been throwing for a long time. It’s just that the results weren’t what you like for them to see, so there’s some scrutiny paid to it.”