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Orioles' Chris Tillman finding comfort zone as he prepares for Opening Day start

After bouncing between Triple-A Norfolk and major leagues for several seasons, 25-year-old right-hander will face the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards on Monday

By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun

8:19 PM EDT, March 30, 2014

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Chris Tillman knows it will be a special moment Monday afternoon when he takes the mound at Camden Yards to officially open another baseball season in Baltimore.

But all of the festivities — running through the outfield on the orange carpet, the sellout crowd and the optimism that accompanies a new season — will all take a back seat once he stares in to catcher Matt Wieters for the first time.

"The baseball field is our home," Tillman said. "That's where we feel comfortable at."

There is a certain cachet that comes with being named Opening Day starter, but you wouldn't know it from listening to him speak.

"I don't look into it as deep as that," Tillman said, sitting back and speaking softly in the Orioles clubhouse in Sarasota, Fla., before the end of spring training. "I look at it that it's the first game, and I'm the first guy up, and it's the first challenge. I really don't look at all the glitz and glamour of it. I look at the competing side of it and what we have to do to win the baseball game."

When the 25-year-old right-hander talks about being named the team's Opening Day starter — he is the fifth different pitcher to have the role in as many years — he quickly deflects the attention away from himself, saying that any of the Orioles' five starters could do the same. And that's one of the reasons why manager Buck Showalter gave him the nod.

"That's why you like him so much," Showalter said. "He's mature in that he realizes it's just one start, but he also realizes the perception of it, the added notoriety of Opening Day. He knows how other people view it, but he also knows how we as a team view it. It's just one of thirty-something [starts this year]. They are all going to be important."

Coming off a breakout 16-win season, the Southern California native has been able to mesh his natural laid-back demeanor with an inner intensity and a desire to be great.

The result has been an ace in the making.

"I don't show my emotions, but I do have to pitch with a fire in my belly," Tillman said. "I know that, if I'm capable of making a pitch, and I completely miss and do something stupid and don't execute, I get mad at myself, but I don't let anyone else know it. I don't let the other team know it. Why should I tell the other team what I did by accident? I want them to think I did it on purpose. To me, I've got to pitch, you could say, pitch in a bad mood. But I don't let too much get to me. If I go out and do my job, I know, win or loss, I gave my team a chance."

That attitude came with time.

When Tillman arrived in the Orioles' organization in 2008 as a major piece, along with center fielder Adam Jones, of the trade that sent left-hander Erik Bedard to the Seattle Mariners, he came with a can't-miss label. And he learned quickly that results don't come so easily.

Tillman made his major league debut in 2009 at age 21, but he spent the next three seasons moving between the Orioles and Triple-A Norfolk, never quite doing enough to stabilize himself as a contributor in the majors. He had an ERA above 5.00 in each of those three seasons. But the punch to the gut that might have changed it all for Tillman came at the end of the 2011 season when he didn't received a September call-up.

"I think I pitched well in the big leagues one time at that point, maybe my first year," Tillman said. "It was disappointing. In September, they told me to go home. That kind of hit home hard, and you could just look at it: It wasn't happening. It wasn't working. Something had to change."

Everyone had an opinion on how Tillman could get better. He said he tried to please all of them, so he constantly made adjustments. But since he spent more time in Triple-A than the majors at that time, he worked a lot with Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin, who saw Tillman's good and bad moments.

"He knew me better than I knew myself at the time because I didn't know what was going on," Tillman said. "He broke it down for me. He said, 'Listen, this isn't you.' We need to get back to what you do best. … We simplified my delivery and made it super easy. … I'm a tall lanky, oaf-ey guy that's not very coordinated, so we had to make it simple."

That offseason, Tillman also began working out with then-Orioles special assistant Brady Anderson in Irvine, Calif. The arrival of director of pitching development Rick Peterson, who broke down pitchers' deliveries with his biomechanical testing program, helped Tillman see how a simpler delivery could give him more power and better control.

Tillman failed to make the team out of spring training to start the 2012 season, but he felt like he was on the verge of a breakthrough, even though he lost seven of his first 10 decisions at Norfolk. Then, in a late-May start, he threw eight shutout innings, giving up one hit against Triple-A Pawtucket, a Boston affiliate.

"It wasn't a deal of seeing results, but working on different things to get the results later," Tillman said. "But then one day, it just clicked and it went from there."

Tillman returned to the major leagues on July 4, 2012, throwing an 81/3-inning gem (two hits, two unearned runs) on the road against the Seattle Mariners. He finished the season 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA, finally able to build on consistency.

"He's steadily progressed every year, which is impressive, especially as a young guy," said catcher Matt Wieters, who has caught Tillman since their time at Double-A Bowie in 2008. "You normally see a jump up and then a step back. And he's just progressed and kind of stayed the course and continued to believe that what he's doing, if it keeps working, it's going to pay off for him. It started to pay off for him last year. I think the most impressive thing about him is whether he's had a good game or a bad game or indifferent, he has the same mentality of coming to the field ready to do what he can to help the team win."

Last year's 16-win season matched the win total of Tillman's first four major league seasons combined. He capped a first half in which he went 11-3 with an American League All-Star Game selection, becoming the first Orioles pitcher to be named to the Midsummer Classic since 2008.

"Chris Tillman is a totally different pitcher now," right-hander Miguel Gonzalez said. "He knows how to pitch. He has a little more experience now. He was one of the guys who was really big for us last year. I'm happy for him and proud for him, and I'm going to keep rooting for him because he is one of my favorites out there. He has done a big change."

During one span of the season from May 24 to Aug. 9, the Orioles won 13 of Tillman's 14 starts and he was 11-1 over that span. He struck out eight or more hitters in seven of his final 13 starts and won eight games on the road, sixth most in the AL.

Perhaps most importantly, Tillman recorded quality starts in 21 of his 33 outings in 2013 and became the fifth Orioles starter to pitch 200 innings since 2001.

"I think consistency is a big part of it," Tillman said. "It comes down to being consistent, being a guy who your teammates know what they're going to get every time you go out there and being consistent with all my pitches. Whether I'm behind or ahead in the count, I know I can throw them for a strike. In the past, I fell behind, and it seems like I always had to go to the fastball, and it just wasn't working in the big leagues.

"I'm a person who is tough on myself. I look back on my starts, I judge myself pretty tough. In the past, I'd give up a home run and think, 'Man that was a pretty good pitch.' Now I say, 'That's a horrible pitch. It needs to be better.' I think that's the way this organization is getting us to judge ourselves a little tougher and not make excuses."

What can Tillman now do for an encore in 2014? For one, he needs to cut down on home runs allowed after giving up 33 last season, which was third-most in the major leagues. He said he doesn't want to set any goals as far as win totals, ERA or innings. That's selfish to do, he said. It may work for some, but he doesn't see the point.

"For me, I want to go out there and be consistent," he said. "I want to be a guy who my teammates can continue to count on. I want to be reliable and stay healthy. Whatever it takes to get on the field every fifth day, that's my goal, not anything outside of that."

He does see that his success has correlation with the Orioles' return to winning.

"I think it has a lot to do with it," he said. "The way this organization was when I got here to where it is now, it's pretty evident. It wasn't pretty, but the strides that have been made, and the way this locker room has changed and just the vibe around it, I think it goes to show where the organization is going. It's going in the right direction, and I think it's going to be a big year."

Wieters said he believes Tillman has just scratched the surface of his potential.

"I've caught him since he was 19 or 20 in Double-A, and he's got great stuff and a great mentality, and when you have those two things and you can figure out how to put them together, the sky's the limit," Wieters said. "He's not going to change through success or failure, which is refreshing to see in this day and age. Someone who is not necessarily going to care about what people say about him. He's going to take of business and take care of what he can take care of."

For someone who is only 25, Tillman has seen a lot — struggled a lot, and suddenly, seen his share of success. He's now better for it.

"I just think it was growing pains, really," Tillman said. "You learn from failure, and I failed a lot. I don't wish it on anybody, but it's important. You can't go out there and pitch well all the time. You're going to get knocked around every now and then. I think there's a learning curve, and you have to take bits and pieces from what everybody's saying."

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