Chris Tillman is still finding his footing after missing the season's first five weeks on the disabled list, and after taking little victories from each of his first two starts, the Orioles right-hander put together his first quality start of his delayed season.
Tillman is at his best when he's mixing his pitches effectively. And in holding a Toronto Blue Jays batting order to three runs on five hits – all three runs coming in the fourth inning – in the Orioles' 5-3 extra-inning win Friday night, Tillman has plenty to build off of moving forward after being sidelined with shoulder problems that forced him to open the season on the disabled list and dated back to last August.
"I think so, yeah," Tillman said when asked if he believed Friday's outing was a step forward. "I think we are taking steps every time. I think this one, by far, was the best one other than the one inning that kind of got away from me a little bit. Pitching-wise I feel like was much better. I wouldn't say great, but we are able to compete and make pitches when we needed to and it's going to be a fight for a little while."
Tillman's first two outings were shortened by high pitch counts, but on Friday, he avoided a 20-pitch frame.
He established his fastball early, and then used that to use his secondary pitches, throwing his changeup, slider and curveball for double-digit totals.
Though Tillman had four strikeouts, including three straight at the end of the second inning and beginning of the third, the key to his success was keeping the ball of the ground. He induced eight groundouts, compared to one flyout.
"That's a guy — he's a pitcher," said Welington Castillo, who caught Tillman for the first time. "He's going to use all of his pitches, both sides of the plate, any count. Always, I feel like it makes your job easier when you have a guy like him on the mound."
Tillman retired nine of the first 10 hitters he faced until the fourth, when his battled with his control. Tillman opened the inning with a hit batter and a walk. He then allowed an RBI single to Justin Smoak and a run-scoring double to Devon Travis, a ball that hit off the high scoreboard in right and would have been a home run had Travis hit it slightly more toward center field. A groundout scored the third Toronto run of the inning.
Take away that inning, and Tillman was in control for the rest of the night.
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"I kind of got out of my rhythm and tried to do too much," Tillman said. "But it was much better. Stuff was much better."
Tillman escaped a two-on, two-out jam in the sixth, and was removed from the game after 91 pitches. He said he could have gone deeper, but Orioles manager Buck Showalter – having the benefit of a rested bullpen – allowed his relievers to pick up from there.
"I thought his stuff ticked up, a little better command of the curveball," Showalter said. "I thought he had a little more crispness to his fastball. He did what he needed to do. Got us through six innings, gave us a chance to win. That part of the order coming up through there, and having Darren [O'Day] and Brad [Brach] and [Alec] Asher all rested ... But he presented himself well. It was a step forward."
Tillman had a slightly higher tick on his fastball Friday – his four-seamer was up a half-mph to an average of 90.7 mph, hitting 92.6 mph, according to PITCHf/x, and had enough distance between his fastball and changeup (which averaged 84.4 mph) to be effective.
But all along, Tillman hasn't been concerned with radar gun readings, knowing that being able to mix his pitches effectively will prove more fruitful than velocity.
"I feel like I can compete and win ballgames with what I have," Tillman said. "If more shows up, then so be it. I know I can get guys out and win ballgames with what I have."