August 20, 2017 -- The Orioles lose to the Angels, 5-4. (Denise Sanders, Baltimore Sun video)
In a perfect world, Chris Tillman would be where he was at this time last year, sitting on 15 wins and trying not to listen to people speculating how much money he stood to make in free agency after the 2017 season.
In the currently imperfect world, Tillman is just trying to find his way back there, and time is running short.
"I think the comeback is going to be this year. … I really do," Tillman said Sunday. "I feel like I'm that close."
This isn't about free agency or what his next contract will look like. It's about Tillman reclaiming his real self, but he couldn't really say that he did that in Sunday's 5-4 loss to the Los Angeles Angels at Camden Yards.
He thought he made some progress. He also knew that six walks over 5 1/3 innings probably obscured anyone else's evaluations.
"Probably should have been much better," he said. "If I even cut the walks in half, that's a different ballgame."
Manager Buck Showalter certainly agreed with that. He felt Tillman made some progress in his first start since being sent to the bullpen to work through his command struggles, but he knows better than to get ahead of himself after watching his erstwhile No. 1 starter struggle all year.
"I thought the stuff was better," he said. "It was a semi-step. We'll see where it goes from here."
Tillman is a positive guy, and he remained so after Sunday's game. A lot of what he said about his performance — which was two outs from being a quality start before Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons spoiled it with a two-run homer — he has said before.
Still, there was a bit of a sigh in his voice as he talked about the walks — nine in all for the Orioles — that were his and his team's undoing.
"It's just too many … too many to try to pitch out of," he said. "You can't expect to win a game walking that many."
He will get another chance. Maybe several. The Orioles cannot afford to give up on him, and he's not going to give up on himself. He felt as if he'd figured something out during the time he spent in the bullpen and with pitching coach Roger McDowell, watching before-and-after video.
Maybe he did. Showalter pointed out that he handled Angels superstar Mike Trout and 10-time All-Star Albert Pujols well, holding them to a combined 1-for-7 and striking out Trout twice.
"I'm trying to look at the runs given up other than the last two, but we did give them up and we did make a pitch we'd like to have back," Showalter said. "But he did a good job with Trout and Pujols, for the most part. Usually, you hold those two guys without a whole lot of damage, you like your chances."
A year ago at about this time, you had to like Tillman's chances of having a big 2017 and scoring a huge multiyear contract. But shoulder discomfort slowed his roll toward 20 victories last season and recurred during the offseason. He has not been the same since.
Exactly a year ago Sunday, he gave up six runs to the Houston Astros over two innings, his last start before a three-week shutdown. He was 15-5 with a 3.76 ERA at the time. After 16 starts and two relief appearances this year, he's 1-7 with a 7.75 ERA..
Which, unfortunately, leaves room to wonder whether he'll ever be the same again. Tillman does not entertain that kind of doubt. He was asked after Sunday's game whether he believes he will re-emerge as the dominant pitcher he was for all but a few weeks last season.
"Absolutely. I don't think it's gone anywhere," he said. "I just haven't pitched well. It's still there. What I learned with those two games in the bullpen, the stuff is still there. You've got to just relax and make pitches. Stay within yourself and try to execute as much as possible."
Maybe the next time he takes the mound, it will all come together, but how many times has he jogged out there thinking that and come back wondering why it didn't happen?
"It's frustrating, but at the same time, if you start dwelling on that and start thinking about that, you're not going to make any progress," Tillman said. "You've got to stay focused and keep working on what you need to do and you'll start making some ground up. I'm a firm believer, you stay true to who you are you'll iron this stuff out. I think we're definitely getting back to where we need to be."
He'll let others speculate on his future. You would think that if there is no dramatic change, the Orioles would offer a make-good contract for next season and give him a chance to get back in a position to cash in on free agency down the road.
Tillman doesn't want to hear about that.
"It's coming," he said of a return to form. "It's only a matter of time. I'd like to have it happen this year."