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Tillman to start second straight opener

When the Orioles arrived here for spring training, Chris Tillman was atop manager Buck Showalter's list of candidates to be the team's Opening Day starter.

Tillman had done it before. He won a team-high 29 games over the past two seasons, and his unfazed demeanor on the mound and in the clubhouse let Showalter know that the tag wouldn't affect him.

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So it was no surprise on Tuesday when Showalter named Tillman the starter in the Orioles' opener against the Tampa Bay Rays on April 6 at Tropicana Field.

"We had some good people to pick from," Showalter said. "Some guys had some good years last year, but we think Chris ... Let's face it, the one thing you get out of it is you get a chance to be out on the hill more over the course of the season. You've all seen the progression of Chris. He's kind of graduated to that type of responsibility."

Tillman will make his second consecutive Opening Day start, becoming just the third Orioles pitcher to open the season in back-to-back years, following Jeremy Guthrie (2008, 2009) and Rodrigo Lopez (2005, 2006).

"It means a lot," Tillman said. "I think when we've got five guys who are capable of doing it, that makes it that much more special. And I think every guy in here thinks the same way. We really do have five guys. There's only Opening Day, the first game, once and then the rest of the season it's our best guys going that night. I think as a group we all feel that way and I'm just excited to get this thing underway."

"I think it's an accomplishment," Tillman added. "I take a lot of pride in making all my starts. I think you guys know that. I think anytime you're able to so that twice, it means you're making all your starts. It means you're healthy and you're staying on the field."

Tillman was 13-6 with a 3.34 ERA in a majors-leading 34 starts in 2014. His 207 1/3 innings and 21 quality starts were both career highs.

From June 10 to Sept. 20 last year, Tillman posted 20 straight starts in which he allowed three earned runs or fewer, tying Steve Barber for the second-longest streak in club history. He was 6-1 with a 2.33 ERA after the All-Star break and was unbeaten in his first 15 road starts of the season, compiling a 8-1 mark away from Camden Yards.

"When I first came here, he was a guy that really caught the other side of it," Showalter said. "He's very baseball savvy. He walks that fine line between respecting the game but also having a certain self confidence about himself. I like the way he looks on game day and I like the way he looks the other four days. He doesn't take himself too seriously. He has a real respect for how hard this is to do. I never heard him make one excuse or not hold himself to a high standard.

The 26-year-old will become the youngest Orioles pitcher to make consecutive Opening Day starts since former ace Mike Mussina started three straight Opening Days from 1994 to 1996 between ages 25 and 27.

"It's an honor," Showalter said. "I'd like to think about the history of pitchers in Baltimore over the years. I've always felt like the sky's the limit with Chris. You always feel like he's got even another level he can go to. I don't think I've ever seen him look as solid all around as he has this spring, knock on wood."

Early in his career with the Orioles, Tillman struggled to remain consistent, but since he was called up to the majors for the final time on July 4, 2012, he has been remarkably dependable. He is 38-16 with a 3.42 in 82 starts since then.

His 38 wins since 2012 are tied for 11th most in the American League in that span.

"Very seldom is he going to carry all four pitches, but when he does, he can make it look easy, and it's not," Showalter said. "He's got the fastball that doesn't have to be 93, 94 to be successful. He's got a deceptive presentation in how he delivers the ball, and we've been careful not to take that away from him. He's in a comfort level with his delivery now after a lot of things over the years.

"He's kind of matured to the point where he knows what works for him and what doesn't," Showalter said. "He listens to everybody but he takes what works and what doesn't."

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The Orioles return all six starting candidates from a rotation that compiled a collective 3.61 ERA, so Showalter had several options to start the opener, including 16-game winner Wei-Yin Chen and 15-game winner Bud Norris. But he opted for the dependability of Tillman, who has also recorded back-to-back 200-inning seasons, the first pitcher to do so since Guthrie posted three straight 200-inning seasons from 2009 to 2011.

"I think it's a nice bar that they're all striving for," Showalter said. "They know what it means to the team more than anything … to have that guy. That's the thing that allows the club to be consistent over the course of the season, consistency of the starting pitchers. A lot of things work off that, and not just the bullpen."

Last season, Tillman earned a no-decision in the opener against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards, allowing one run on seven hits over five innings in a 2-1 Orioles win. He said having gone through the experience once before will help him the second time around.

Tillman has had mixed success against the Rays. He is 4-6 with a 4.08 ERA in 14 starts against Tampa Bay and 1-2 with a 3.41 ERA in five starts at Tropicana Field.

"Hopefully, I'm able to control myself a little bit better this year," Tillman said. "Last year, I was excited, I got the nerves going. This year I'd like to handle it a little better.

But he realizes the importance of being given the Opening Day starter tag.

"You try to get on a roll from the get go," he said. "I think that's important for the team and as a pitcher. I think momentum is everything in this game and if you can establish that in the first game, you're probably going to have a good series. I think that's the most important thing. You want to come out of the series with a series win, but it starts with Game 1 and the first pitch, really."

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