'A scout's delight'

The Baltimore Sun

BOWIE -- As a pitcher at the Double-A level who turned 20 last month, Chris Tillman has just a couple of consistencies in his professional life: the effusive praise and lofty expectations that follow him from one ballpark to the next. It doesn't matter whether he strings together scoreless innings or abruptly loses his command. The opinions never seem to change.

Tillman, acquired by the Orioles in the Erik Bedard trade with the Seattle Mariners, allowed one hit over six innings in his most recent start with the Bowie Baysox. In his previous turn, against Akron, he couldn't get out of the fourth after surrendering a three-run homer.

His Eastern League debut lasted two innings - and 14 batters. On April 12, he no-hit Akron over five innings.

These are the familiar ups and downs of a young prospect who didn't pitch above Single-A until this season and is only two years removed from high school. But he's good and getting better, a point that doesn't spark much debate.

"I think he's got a bright future ahead of him," said Bowie manager Brad Komminsk, a former major league outfielder who played for the Orioles in 1990. "He pitches inside, he can locate, his curveball is coming along. I definitely like what I've seen so far."

If Tillman struggles, it won't be from nerves. Each success or failure brings a shrug of the shoulders and a calm assessment of his performance.

"He's very poised on the mound," Komminsk said. "He seems very polished for a young kid."

That much was evident after he threw 36 pitches in the fourth inning of a May 4 game. Tillman noted afterward that he had a good fastball but no consistency with his off-speed stuff. He made good pitches and Akron hit them.

"You can't do anything about that," said Tillman, who is 3-0 with a 2.87 ERA in seven starts, with 19 hits allowed and 29 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings. "Every level is a step up. You have to make adjustments now and settle yourself in. I'll get there."

He won't make much noise doing it. Tillman isn't likely to embark on a career as a motivational speaker, but the same low-key personality that was on display in spring training, and at Prince George's Stadium, should serve him well on the mound.

"He's quiet, but I think he knows what he wants to get accomplished out there, and he has expectations for himself," Komminsk said. "I haven't seen any indication that anything's really bothering him right now."

Said Bowie outfielder Luis Montanez: "It doesn't seem like anything rattles him."

Tillman was named the Mariners' minor league Pitcher of the Year last season after going a combined 7-11 with a 4.84 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 135 2/3 innings between Single-A Wisconsin and High Desert. Baseball America rated him the organization's No. 2 prospect. But he has found the next step up baseball's ladder to be even sturdier.

"I think this level is easier than where I was last year," he said. "The [California League] is definitely not pitcher-friendly. I think it was tougher. I'm just not always getting the breaks right now, but it'll come around."

Orioles president Andy MacPhail refers to Tillman as "a scout's delight," a 6-foot-5 right-hander who receives high grades for his plus curveball, a fastball that touches 94 mph and a clean delivery that he easily repeats. Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis calls Tillman "your classic young, projectable pitching prospect."

"He's looking pretty good so far," Bowie pitching coach Mike Griffin said. "He's starting to get his feet settled on the ground. He's getting more comfortable as the season progresses. And when that happens, everything starts to flow."

Tillman might have been the most impressive pitcher at spring training, but the Orioles reassigned him to minor league camp in Sarasota, Fla., after three weeks and vowed not to rush him. The majors will have to wait. But for how long depends on Tillman, even though the decision ultimately rests with others.

"I guess it'll happen when I get more consistent and have better command of all my pitches," he said. "I've got my fastball down. I just need to start commanding my curveball and my changeup for strikes early in the count."

Said Griffin: "Does he have a major league future? Yes, he does. Where he fits in, that will be Baltimore's choice. But he's not overmatched here by any stretch of the imagination. He fits in perfectly."


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