BOSTON — If right-hander Chris Tillman is indeed the Orioles' ace, if he is indeed a bona fide top-of-the-rotation starter who can walk into any situation against any opponent and succeed, than he had the perfect opportunity to prove it Thursday night at Fenway Park.
Tillman did — and the Orioles escaped Boston with one win in the first series of a crucial nine-game road trip.
Thanks to seven superb innings from Tillman and a solid performance from their beleaguered bullpen, the Orioles beat the Red Sox, 3-2, to avoid being victims of a sweep at Fenway Park for the first time since July 2011.
The victory was Tillman's 15th of the season — making him the first Oriole to reach that mark since lefty Erik Bedard in 2006.
"It's big. I think more importantly for the team," said the 25-year-old right-hander, who was acquired from the Mariners in 2008 as part of a trade that sent Bedard to Seattle. "This self stuff is kind of eye-wash to me. It was big to get that win tonight, going to New York with a happy clubhouse."
The Orioles (71-61) moved back to within 6 ½ games of the first-place Red Sox (79-56) in the American League East and are now 3 ½ games behind the Oakland Athletics for the second AL wild-card spot.
The Orioles now play three games at Yankee Stadium before going to Cleveland for three more — six consecutive contests against the two teams directly behind them in the wild-card race.
"We've got 30 games left, and September is an eternity," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, whose club had lost three of four before Thursday. "A lot of people have been in the war. It's a long season that starts here shortly. It will edge by, and that will be good for us if we're trying to catch up. Don't sell us short."
Thursday's win, played before an announced 33,330 on a crisp New England evening, had its share of tense moments. Orioles lefty Brian Matusz entered in relief of Tommy Hunter with two outs and one on in the bottom of the eighth and struck out slugger David Ortiz on four pitches. Matusz has allowed just one hit in Ortiz's 19 career at-bats against him while fanning the burly lefty 11 times.
"Those previous at-bats don't mean anything going into today," Matusz said. "Obviously, Ortiz is one of the best hitters in the league. You've got to respect that. So I just went out there and attacked the zone. Went out there with no regrets."
The bottom of the ninth was left to closer Jim Johnson, who has blown nine saves this season, including three in mid-August. The first batter he faced, Daniel Nava, reached base when Johnson fielded a dribbler that first baseman Chris Davis also was attempting to snag. Neither was in position to step on first. Johnson rebounded with a double play and a strikeout to secure his 41st save of the season.
"You've got a swinging bunt in the right place and two guys are trying to make a play and do the right thing and it didn't work," Showalter said. "What do you do, go 'Woe is me?' No, you throw a good sinker and get a ground ball and move on."
Johnson's save allowed the greater Baltimore area to exhale — and Tillman to finally grab elusive win No. 15 in his fifth try. Despite pitching well, he hadn't won since Aug. 2, with three no-decisions and a loss in the span. He's now moved into second in AL in wins behind Detroit Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer's 19.
"He's solid," Showalter said of Tillman. "There've been a couple of games he probably won this year that weren't esthetically pleasing. He's had some that we just weren't able to finish up. He was just a rock, pitched well the whole game, I thought."
Tillman (15-4) flashed his moxie and a hammer curveball while striking out eight batters and allowing six hits and no walks. It was the third time in his past five starts, and ninth time in 2013, that he pitched at least seven innings.
Perhaps more impressive, he is now 8-1 with a 2.93 ERA in 12 road starts this season.
"It's hard to say, it's hard to pinpoint," Tillman said when asked why he dominates on the road. "I go into every game with the same mindset and the same goal. I think it's tough playing on the road. It is. Especially in cities like Boston and New York, and I'm happy with it."
The Red Sox scored first when Nava led off the second inning with a double. Three batters later, Stephen Drew hit a two-out single to right for a 1-0 lead.
The Orioles went up 2-1 in the third on Manny Machado's majors-leading 45th double. The Orioles had been hitless in seven at-bats this series with runners in scoring position before Machado smacked his two-run liner off the Green Monster in left.
From there it remained a pitcher's duel between Tillman and Boston lefty Jon Lester, who entered Thursday 15-2 in his career against the Orioles. Lester (12-8) gave up a third run in the fifth when Adam Jones worked a two-out walk and Davis followed with his 38th double and 121st RBI of the year.
Lester didn't allow a run again, but he was charged with his first loss since Aug. 8. Meanwhile, Tillman retired 12 of 14 batters after Drew's RBI single in the second. Shane Victorino broke Tillman's streak of eight straight outs in the sixth when he crushed a 3-1 fastball into the Green Monster seats for his 12th homer of the season.
It capped an impressive series for Victorino, who was 6-for-11 with three homers, nine RBIs and five runs scored in three games.
It was one of only a few mistakes made Thursday by Tillman, the new 15-game winner and burgeoning club ace.
"No doubt," Matusz said about Tillman's ace status. "I mean, a guy that goes out there and throws seven, eight innings every outing, has 15 wins at this point in the season against the American League East? I mean, there's no doubt to say that he's an ace."