Chris Tillman was on his way to proving that he's just different — not diminished — Saturday in the Bronx when a familiar burden ended up crushing a pitcher who has meant so much to the Orioles in the past.
With a short-staffed bullpen and a quick turnaround from a wild, 14-inning win Friday night, the one-time Orioles ace was required to soak up as many innings as he could and not cripple the team going forward. Without gaudy statistics, his ability to do just that was what made him the team’s best starter through its renaissance this decade.
On a base level, he did that Saturday, albeit in an 8-3 loss to the New York Yankees before an announced 34,388 fans at Yankee Stadium that dropped the Orioles to 3-6 on the season.
“You need to get deeper in the game,” Tillman said. “I think that's important — get some quick outs early and often. I think that's just a big part of baseball, picking up the bullpen when they're done. Last night was such a long game, I needed to get deep in that game. I was one or two pitches away from getting really deep in that game.”
The length he did give came at the expense of his own performance, as he left in the sixth inning with five runs on his account. That sixth inning would have been a bonus for both Tillman (0-2) and the Orioles. But instead, the Yankees pulled ahead for good that that inning and Tillman did nothing to clear up whether the 2018 edition of him is going to be more effective than the one that lost his rotation spot a season ago.
Both he and manager Buck Showalter said he was better than his debut Monday against the Astros, and Tillman said he’s more confident with his entire arsenal, but “the results haven’t really been there yet.”
With five runs allowed on eight hits in 5 1/3 innings, with four walks and three strikeouts, Tillman now has pitched 9 1/3 innings and allowed 2.46 base runners per inning (15 hits and eight walks), carrying over the same problems that plagued him last year and caused him to end the season with a 7.84 ERA.
He pitched around some early trouble in the first inning Saturday, stranding Brett Gardner at third after a double on his first pitch and leaving two Yankees on base. He wasn't so fortunate in the second, when Miguel Andújar led off with a single, Austin Romine reached on a fielder's choice, Ronald Torreyes doubled to put two in scoring position and Gardner singled them both home to put the Yankees up 2-0.
Manny Machado erased that deficit with a two-run double in the top of the third. Tillman looked to be settling in while facing the minimum in the third and fourth innings, but things got tough in the fifth. Torreyes singled and scored on a groundout by Aaron Judge, and if that had been Tillman's day — three runs on five hits in five innings — it would have been a step in the right direction.
But with Showalter likely trying to stay away from relievers Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro and Pedro Araujo after they pitched at least two innings apiece Friday, the manager didn't want to go to the bullpen too early.
So, Tillman came back out with the bullpen quiet for the sixth inning. He walked Didi Gregorius on four pitches, and left-hander Richard Bleier only got up to get ready when Tillman went behind 2-0 to the ensuing batter. After a mound visit from pitching coach Roger McDowell, Tillman allowed a single to Tyler Austin. Gregorius scored on a sacrifice fly by Andújar. After two more singles — the second a blooper to short right field with the infield pulled in that first baseman Chris Davis tracked down for a basket catch but couldn't hang on to — Bleier relieved Tillman. He ended the sixth with a double play.
When Tillman was an All-Star and anchoring playoff rotations for the Orioles, an extra inning on a day like this wasn't a big ask. It was the expectation. But since he went out with a shoulder injury in August 2016 and gritted through the end of that season to make a wild-card game start, things have changed for him.
Even if the results are similar, and some of the indicators of long-term success remain constant, Tillman is certainly showing himself to be a different pitcher in some ways. After averaging 90.7 mph with his fastball last season, Tillman was on the south side of 90 for the second straight start, averaging 89 mph Saturday, according to Statcast data from BaseballSavant.com. He has much better life on both his slider/cutter and curveball, and used each effectively Saturday, but threw more sliders (43) than fastballs (35) for the first time since he began heavily featuring that breaking ball.
“I think [Kevin Gausman] kind of set the tone last night with that,” Tillman said. “He was pretty heavy with his off-speed pitches, and granted, I don't have the same off-speed pitches he does — completely different. But you can kind of do the same thing with them, keep the guys in the ballpark, slow them down a little bit and take your shots with the fastball when you feel like you slow them down enough.”
Tillman lost his target some Saturday, albeit not as much as he did Monday against the Houston Astros, and tested catcher Chance Sisco with a few balls in the dirt as he wore down in the sixth inning. But he felt he was able to get it back when he needed to.
“I thought Chris was better today,” Showalter said. “And there’s still another level where we know he can go to. We really had a need to get some length out of our starter today and Chris provided that and kept us engaged in the game. Even at 5-3, we had a shot there.”
The rest of the game — with a tight strike zone for freshly summoned right-hander Jimmy Yacabonis leading to a three-run seventh inning and a tense but scoreless inning from Rule 5 draft pick Nestor Cortes Jr. — made Showalter's ask of Tillman both moot and completely reasonable in retrospect.
The Orioles offense saw just 11 pitches from starter Sonny Gray (1-0) in the first two innings, and scratched together three runs on Machado's two-out double in the third and an RBI double for Friday's hero, Pedro Álvarez, with two down in the fourth. They had two hits from that point on.
“It was tough, but you've got to find a way to play,” said second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who struck out to end the seventh inning, stranding two in scoring position to kill the Orioles’ last, best threat. “That's why we're in the big leagues. You've got to find a way to get ready and try to win. We did, but we came up short today.”