For all the flashes of promise that Chris Tillman has shown the Orioles, up until now they've been just that, shimmers of brilliance in between chapters of unfulfilled potential. Since making his major league debut three years ago at the age of 21, Tillman has tantalized Orioles fans with that promise – looking magnificent on some days and overwhelmed on others.
On Thursday afternoon, with the Orioles desperately needing a win to avoid a three-game sweep from the Tampa Bay Rays, the now 24-year-old Tillman took a significant step in building a resume of consistency.
Despite pitching sick, Tillman held the Rays scoreless over his first six innings, giving the O's their eighth quality start in their last nine games in a 6-2 win before an announced 21,301 at Camden Yards.
For Tillman, who allowed just two runs on five hits over six-plus innings, it marked the first time in his major league career that he's won back-to-back starts. It was also just the second time in his career that he's thrown consecutive quality starts. He last did it during a three-outing stretch on Aug. 8, 14 and 19 of 2009 – the third, fourth and fifth starts of his big league career.
"I think confidence has a lot to play into it," said Tillman, sniffling through his post-game interview. "It comes down to getting my delivery right, and I put a lot of hard work in during the off-season and coming in, so I'm happy with where I'm at right now."
The Orioles (52-47) reclaimed sole possession of second place in the American League East standings. The O's and Rays (51-48) entered the day tied.
In four Orioles starts since being recalled from Triple-A Norfolk on July 4, Tillman has pitched to a 1.66 ERA. That includes his July 16 start in Minnesota, a 2/3-inning outing in which six of his seven runs were unearned. Through one of the hottest afternoons of the summer, Tillman mixed his fastball and changeup well – and even went to his slider in certain counts – to compensate for not having a feel for his curveball.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said the change he's seen in Tillman is also evident off the mound -- in how the young right-hander has utilized the days in between his starts.
"You have to move on to the next challenge whether it's good or bad and prepare it," Showalter said. "Those four days are precious that you get ready for that. Tilly's a tough guy. He competes. There's a lot of things to like about him. And I think hopefully he's starting to grasp that. He's still one of the younger pitchers in the American League."
Said Tillman: "I got a little different routine we put together. Nothing huge. Just a matter of keeping my delivery where it needed to be and making my pitches early in the game. I think that helps. If you can make them in the bullpen, you can make them in the game, too. I think that's a contributing factor there."
Tillman allowed just three hits over his first six innings of work. That came after a rocky start, in which Tillman walked three of the first five batters he faced. But double-play balls helped Tillman out of the first and second innings, and a strikeout-throwout double play ended the top of the fourth.
Showalter called the Orioles' double play in the second inning the play of the game. First baseman Mark Reynolds scooped a sharp ball down the line off the bat of Carlos Pena and threw high to second, but shortstop J.J. Hardy jumped to get snag the ball, transferred the ball his throwing hand on the way down and threw back to first, where Reynolds was covering the bag.
"I'm able to make the adjustments early now," Tillman said. "I'm able to recognize what I need to do. Like I said, it was a battle early on for both guys and I wish I had been better there, limit my pitch count a little bit and make better pitches, but that wasn't the case. But I was able to settle in and let the defense work. They did a great job. Reynolds made that play at first base. That was a key point in the game for me."
Tillman was in control until the seventh, when Sam Fuld's double into the gap in left-center cut the Orioles' lead to 5-2. Fuld's hit came after Davis lost a ball in left field off the bat of Pena, which carried over his head and bounced into the seats for a ground-rule double to put runners at second and third after a walk to Ryan Roberts.
The Orioles, who entered the afternoon hitting .149 with runners in scoring position over their last 15 games, received two huge bases-loaded hits in the fifth off Rays starter James Shields to take a 5-0 lead.
After allowing a one-out single to Nick Markakis, Shields hit J.J. Hardy with a pitch and walked Jim Thome to load the bases before cleanup hitter Adam Jones' single to left scored two runs.
After Matt Wieters drew a walk in the next at-bat, slumping left fielder Chris Davis laced an opposite-field, bases-clearing double into the left-center field gap. Davis capped his first four-RBI day since April 28 with a solo homer off Burke Badenhop to straight-away center in the seventh, his 16th of the season.
"Tilly kept us in that game with Shields going up there throwing up zeroes," Davis said. "We got to him later in the game, and Tilly was there with him, the entire way. [I'm] really proud of him, the way he threw the ball today."