The Orioles' playoff hopes took a hit Tuesday with news that the club will place right-hander Chris Tillman on the 15-day disabled list with lingering shoulder inflammation.
The team is optimistic Tillman, the club's unquestioned ace, will recover in time to return when he is eligible on Sept. 5, but after receiving a cortisone injection Tuesday, Tillman will go on the disabled list for just the second time in his major league career.
No matter the length, losing Tillman comes at a bad time.
"It's tough," Tillman said following the Orioles' 8-1 win over the Washington Nationals. "You don't like it, but you know, it is what it is. It's happened and we have to get better now, but I think this is the best way to go about it and we talked about it a little bit. I'd rather feel better at the end of the season than fighting it all year."
Ubaldo Jimenez, the team's most volatile pitcher, will start in Tillman's place Thursday, the Orioles announced.
Tillman, who is 15-5 with a 3.76 ERA in 26 starts this season, has been an anchor for an unpredictable Orioles starting rotation. The Orioles are 20-6 in games started by Tillman this season and 49-50 in all other games.
"It's going to be huge, especially this time of year," right-hander Kevin Gausman said of the rest of the starting rotation stepping up in Tillman's absence. "Every game matters from here on out, especially in a tight race in the East. We're sad to miss him, but hopefully a little bit of rest will get him to come back and he'll be ready to go."
With the Orioles clinging to the second American League Wild Card spot by 1 1/2 games over the Seattle Mariners with less than six weeks remaining in the regular season (the Mariners played a late game Tuesday), losing their most reliable starting pitcher will put a dent in the Orioles' postseason push.
"We are going to miss him on the mound," center fielder Adam Jones said. "He's still going to be here every day. I look at it as a time for him to go heal. We are still going to keep fighting, grinding and when he comes back hopefully after the 15 days, mid-September, whenever he does, he comes back fresh and ready to make his last three or four starts in a tight race. You can look at it both ways. I want him to heal, but I want I him to heal and get better so he definitely helps us in the final push because he's that important to our staff."
Jimenez will get the nod Thursday at Nationals Park. Jimenez hasn't started a game since the Orioles needed a starter for their makeup game in Minnesota on July 28, when he held the Twins to one run on five hits over five innings. Since then, he's worked in long relief, pitching to a 5.63 ERA in four appearances.
Tillman, whose last start was pushed back three days to give him extra recovery time, said he endured discomfort throwing during his between-starts work session Tuesday.
"I thought once it got loose it would really go away but it never really did, and that was my first time actually experiencing it while throwing," Tillman said. "Last time, I was pretty sore right after my start, but after feeling it today, I'd much rather just get this behind us and get out in front of it so that way we're not worried about it for the rest of the year."
News of Tillman's shoulder pain emerged last week when he was scratched from his start on Aug. 17 and pushed back to Aug. 20 to give him additional rest. Rookie Dylan Bundy started in his place against the Red Sox and in 4 1/3 innings allowed five runs — the most since joining the rotation in the middle of last month.
Pitching on eight days rest, Tillman struggled in his last start Saturday against Houston. He was unable to make it out of the third inning while allowing six runs on six hits and five walks in a 12-2 loss. Tillman's fastball velocity in that start – his four-seamer averaged 91.52 mph, according to BrooksBaseball.net – was its lowest of the season.
Following the game, Tillman said he has no physical issues, instead blaming rust for the command issues that ended his day early. His results said otherwise. He was pulled four batters into the third inning after failing to get an out. Tillman opened the frame hitting Evan Gattis with a pitch, then issued three consecutive walks before exiting the game.
After Tuesday's game, Tillman said his shoulder has continued to bother him.
"It feels OK, not great," said Tillman, who added that there were no plans for a MRI. "I would have liked to have had better results, or response, from the last outing, but it just didn't respond very well. So we're trying to be safe, get this thing in the rear-view mirror. That way I'm not fighting it all year. That's probably the best way to go about it."
Tillman has lost three of his last four starts and owns a 6.66 ERA over his last five outings. He's been the workhorse of the Orioles' staff, recording back-to-back 200-inning seasons in 2013 and '14. His only previous trip to the disabled list was when he opened the 2013 season on the DL recovering from an abdominal strain he suffered during spring training.
The Orioles' rotation was its weak spot for a while, as starters posted a combined a 5.15 ERA in the first half of the season — second worst in the American League. The rotation seemed to find its footing in the second half, posting a 3.93 ERA in its first 30 games following the All-Star break.
But the rotation has regressed again, recording a 6.75 ERA on the team's just-completed 3-5 homestand.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter is optimistic Tillman will be able to return when he is eligible when the team opens a three-game series in Tampa Bay on Sept. 5.
"We have three back dates and an off day so you're talking about 11 days to try to resolve some of the things he's feeling, hopefully. Of course we felt that way about [set-up man] Darren [O'Day], too. So we'll take it one step at a time."
Tillman shared that cautious optimism on Tuesday.
"I would think so, yes, but you know what? I'm going to take it day-by-day," Tillman said. "That's the only thing I can do right now. Play it by ear. I trust in [team trainers] Richie [Bancells] and Brian [Ebel]. It's in their hands now."