Another year of laborious first innings isn't what Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman wants, but the results once he settles in so far in 2016 spell good things for the Orioles' stalwart starter.
His seven shutout innings Friday came on the heels of another difficult first inning, but he settled in for his fifth win of the season and lowered his ERA to 2.58.
It didn't look it would end up that way at the outset. Tillman slogged through a 25-pitch first inning that featured two singles, only to get out without allowing a run. He hasn't always been so lucky.
On the season, 12 of the 35 hits Tillman has allowed have come in the first inning, along with six of the 13 runs he's allowed. His ERA in the first inning is 6.75 on the season. But even after a 17-pitch second inning, which brought him near 50 pitches after just two frames, Tillman knew the way back to another lengthy start.
"He had his pitch count down more manageable there [after the second]," manager Buck Showalter said. "He had a couple quick innings. They had some first-pitch swings that he got some outs on. [Right fielder Mark Trumbo] made a few plays tonight. The mistakes he did make, there wasn't much damage."
On the second time through the Tigers order, Tillman got into a groove, with his fastball still jumping despite often topping out at 92 mph and his new slider keeping hitters off-balance, along with his curveball and changeup. Tillman struck out four of five batters over the course of the third and fourth innings, and after a one-out double in the second inning, didn't allow another hit until a leadoff double in the seventh inning by third baseman Nick Castellanos.
That double, which came as he crept toward 100 pitches, caused him to "empty his tank," Showalter said. He struck out both Justin Upton and Steven Moya on fastballs in that inning before leaving to an ovation after the inning-ending fly ball to deep right field.
The memories of another difficult first inning felt like they were from a different game. It hasn't always been like that. Tillman struggled to get deep in games at times last season as teams sat on his fastball and he couldn't get them off of it, meaning those starts where he began slowly wouldn't always turn around. His career ERA in the first inning is 5.32 entering Friday, and only the sixth inning, which was 5.34, was worse.
That a lineup as deep as Detroit's couldn't muster anything after their early success against Tillman was a testament to the Orioles' starter, center fielder Adam Jones said.
"Tillman did a hell of a job against that lineup," Jones said. "I got to really, really tip my hat to Tillman, stepping up and doing what everybody is counting on him to do, especially here in this clubhouse.
"He's starting to step up in big situations and big ways and pitch big games, and I think against one of the better pitchers in the game, especially in the last decade, he went toe-to-toe with him tonight."
Said Tillman: "I feel good right now. I think mechanically I'm in a good place and I'm able to execute all my pitches when I need to, not necessarily throwing fastballs in a fastball count, but I'm able to throw some other things that I'm not used to doing. It's fun right now, and I'll try to keep it going."