CLEVELAND — Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman took the mound at Progressive Field on Saturday night with two big league starts under his belt this season — one a two-hit gem and the other an absolute disaster in which he could only manage two outs.
The question was which Tillman would show against the Cleveland Indians. The answer in the Orioles' 3-1 victory was a whole lot closer to the guy who dominated the Seattle Mariners than the one who got shelled in Minnesota.
"It was big," said Tillman, who allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings Saturday. "Even after that start [in Minnesota], I knew I was fine. The way I have been pitching in Norfolk and coming here, I knew exactly what I needed to do. And you've gotta keep working. It's not done yet."
Just when it looked like the Orioles' patchwork rotation was coming apart, the group has suddenly turned in four consecutive quality starts for the first time since May 15-18.
The Orioles (50-44) are now 33-14 in games decided by two runs or fewer. This is the earliest they have won their 50th game of the season since 2005, when the club captured No. 50 on July 18. Last year, they didn't win their 50th game until Aug. 24.
It is a roller coaster ride and we are in a situation that we have strung some wins here and we're just trying to focus every day," said designated hitter Jim Thome, who gave the Orioles the lead in the seventh with his 611th career homer. "Whoever gets a big hit, our bench is [into] it, energetic, they are excited. And it's nice to come in here and get some big hits here, for sure."
Things didn't start too well for Tillman, who allowed a home run on his fourth pitch, to right fielder Shin-Soo Choo. It was Choo's fifth leadoff homer and it was the first time in Tillman's big league career that he served one up to his first batter.
But that run continued a disturbing trend for Tillman, who has had trouble in first innings. In his 39 major league starts, he has allowed 35 earned runs in the first — an 8.15 ERA. That's roughly two runs higher than his ERA in any other inning.
"Nothing was going through my mind," Tillman (2-1) said of allowing Choo's homer. "I made a bad pitch and he put a good swing [on it] and it is what it is. I knew what I had to do to be successful and get deep into the game. Let the guys put the ball in play and let the defense work, and they did a great job."
Last week, against the Twins, Tillman was hammered for seven runs (one earned) in the first. This one looked a lot more like his two-hit gem in Seattle on July 4 — his 2012 Orioles debut.
"Chris has a good of a makeup as any of our young pitchers," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "This is a tough guy, and he doesn't scare. The only thing you've got to do there [after the leadoff homer] is control your emotions about being too ticked off. Because he knows he was carrying good stuff in Minnesota and he was probably a defensive play from getting out of that first inning and he might have done the same thing he did tonight. … He settled in real nicely."
On Saturday, Tillman had just one perfect inning, but he didn't yield a run after the first. He left in the seventh, following a two-out single, his sixth hit allowed on the night. He walked just one batter and struck out four while throwing 116 pitches. He was aided by some strong defense, led by shortstop J.J. Hardy, right fielder Nick Markakis and left fielder Chris Davis.
Left-hander Troy Patton entered in the seventh and retired the only batter he faced, Choo, on a groundout. Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson (29th save) threw scoreless innings to end the game in a tidy two hours and 32 minutes.
After being shut out by Cleveland right-hander Zach McAllister through six, the Orioles took the lead in the seventh on a Hardy single and Thome's two-run homer. Thome, who is seventh all-time on the home run list, hit his second as an Oriole and second in two nights.
"I thought Jimmy Thome kind of woke it up a little bit," Showalter said. "McAllister … was really sharp tonight. You had to have a well-pitched game to stay in it with him."
The 41-year-old Thome, who has played roughly half of his career in Cleveland, now has 190 homers at Progressive Field (formerly Jacobs Field). He doesn't have 100 homers in any other ballpark.
"This place has a lot of memories, a lot of great memories." Thome said. "I've had great memories on that side and coming here, obviously as an opponent, against them. I think any time you come home, they say, it is very special. It's even more special to get the 'W.' That's, I think, the main thing."
McAllister (4-2) made just one other mistake, serving up a 430-foot blast to rookie Ryan Flaherty in the eighth. It was Flaherty's fourth homer of the season and second in two games here. The ball landed in the trees behind center field; he thinks it was the longest of his career but he doesn't know for sure. His head was down as he raced around the bases.
"We were in the locker room earlier today and someone was joking that, "You are only 607 behind [Thome],'" Flaherty said. "So I guess [I'll] try to keep pace. I'm still 607 behind him."
The 24-year-old McAllister, who retired 12 consecutive batters after allowing Markakis' single to start the game, lasted a career-high 7 2/3 innings. He allowed just five hits, no walks and struck out six, but was victimized by the home runs.
And by a 24-year-old righty on the other side who threw strikes and escaped the first inning with minimal damage.
"I thought McAllister was throwing a great game; Tilly was doing a great job for us," Thome said. "It was a very efficient game, I thought. The game was moving quick and when games go like that, when you get a chance to get a big hit and you do, with our bullpen, we felt pretty good about where we were at."