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For Chris Tillman, difference between Opening Day and Thursday was a swing-and-miss fastball

For Chris Tillman, difference between Opening Day and Thursday was a swing-and-miss fastball
Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Chris Tillman (30) works the fourth inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, on Thursday, April 14, 2016. The Rangers won, 6-3. (Richard W. Rodriguez / TNS)

Every start we get farther removed from Chris Tillman's fiery but abbreviated Opening Day, there's more and more evidence to question whether that version of the Orioles' top starter was a mirage or the real thing.

He was close to that guy in his next start four days later, but there were signs Thursday in the Orioles' 6-3 loss to the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Stadium that at least on that night, he wasn't the same pitcher.

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In that first start, when Tillman threw 17 of his 22 pitches for strikes, rode his fastball up to 97 mph (with an average of 95 mph) and struck out five, the key statistic was four swinging strikes on 15 fastballs — a small-sample-size driven whiff rate of 26.7 percent.

On April 8, his next start, Tillman's four-seamer averaged 93.6 mph (and topped out at 96). He got seven swinging strikes on 35 fastballs (20 percent), though he also threw 16 of those fastballs for balls. He struck out five in that outing, too.

Thursday saw a slight dip in velocity on the four-seam fastball, maxing out at 94.9 mph and averaging 93. But the whiff rate just wasn't there. He got one swinging strike on 41 fastballs, and seven were put into play. Sometimes, those balls in play turn into hits, and that's what happened to Tillman Thursday.

In the sixth inning, when things went badly for him, Tillman allowed two well-hit balls, then a sky-high double against the shift down the left field line by first baseman Mitch Moreland and an infield single by left fielder Ian Desmond.

Manager Buck Showalter, in complementing Tillman for having the same good stuff he's had all through spring training and the early part of the season, said all those hits falling in and being caught will even out over the course of the season.

"He'll have some outings maybe not as crisp," Showalter said. "I've been so impressed with how crisp he's been since first day of spring — really, the second outing of spring. And if he's carrying this type of stuff, he's going to be a real contributor for us."

Tillman believed he had the arsenal to give the team more than they ultimately got from him.

"They were OK pitches," Tillman said. "They weren't great pitches. They could have been better. The same swings I was getting all night, it was just hitting them at our guys as opposed to not hitting them at our guys. The pitches definitely could have been there, and could have been a little bit better. …

"I feel like I had the stuff to get deep in that game, and contact-wise, I feel like it was a lot of soft contact to get deep in the game," Tillman said. "Unfortunately, stuff happened there in that last inning."

In that, Tillman hit on the main reason for people to be down on the Orioles' starting rotation entering the season: their lack of strikeouts. Tillman has historically gotten by without a high strikeout rate and in his case, it seems like he'll need to recaputre the fastball from Opening Day to get back to racking them up.

(All data courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net)

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