ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — With right-hander Chris Tillman's return from the disabled list on the horizon, and the Orioles' existing rotation having stepped up in their ace's absence, manager Buck Showalter could face the possibility of having a surplus of starting pitching for the first time this season.
When the Orioles placed right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez back in the starting rotation, it was by default, and the team hoped he could hold his own during a critical stretch in the season until Tillman returned from a shoulder injury.
Jimenez has ably done the job, highlighted by Monday afternoon's complete-game win over the Tampa Bay Rays — the kind of outing these Orioles need now more than ever. Add in the steps taken by young arms Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy in the starting rotation, and the Orioles' starting pitching could be turning the corner right as Tillman is scheduled to return from the disabled list Sunday.
With the Orioles heading into Tuesday's game in Tampa Bay clinging to the second American League wild-card spot – they entered the night tied with a Detroit Tigers team they will visit this weekend – this is the time for the rotation to reach its stride.
"We've talked about it all the time," Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace said. "My philosophy has been through all the years, if you do what you need to do throughout the season, those last four or five weeks of the season, hopefully everyone is physically stronger because you haven't overworked them, and mentally stronger because they know what's at stake. And so far, these guys have sort of taken that to heart."
Showalter isn't getting too far ahead of himself, saying Tillman still has obstacles to overcome before the Orioles can consider themselves at a surplus of pitching options. Tillman is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Wednesday and have a light toss on Friday before returning to start Sunday in Detroit.
"We still have some hurdles to cross there," Showalter said. "And then there's the Detroit Tigers. There's one thing to be healthy. Can you be effective? I'll never feel like we have a surplus. That's such a moving target, and such an unpredictable thing. If Chris comes back and is healthy, then yes, but a lot of it has to do with Bundy's emergence and Gaus has gotten better and better and Ubaldo has pitched some good games for us and we think that we might have Tillman around the corner."
When Tillman returns, Showalter will likely entertain the thought of going to a six-man rotation down the stretch, but he has never been a fan of that move, and has refused the option in the past. He likes to keep his starters in a routine in which they know they're getting the ball every five days.
"So we're just going to look at it each day," Showalter said. "It's kind of like the lineup. See who we're pitching, see who they're pitching, see where the matchups fall, and go for it. There's a lot of things you're doing right now that you might not have done in April, May or June."
Playing matchups would allow the Orioles to pick and choose when to give an extra day to a pitcher, and could help keep Bundy and Gausman fresh through September as they both reach the highest inning totals of their careers.
Gausman has thrown 146 innings this season, and is looking better than ever. He will soon surpass his career-high of 158 2/3 innings, reached in 2014. Bundy's 90 2/3 innings are his most since throwing 103 2/3 innings — mostly in the minors — in 2012, the season before he underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction.
"It depends on how your rotation is put together," Wallace said about considering a six-man rotation. "If you have young guys who need a break, it works great. If you have some veterans who like it on every fourth or fifth day, you're fighting that, too. ...I'm sure Buck will tell you, we go over everything. What are we going to do moving forward? If you can tell me what's going to happen in tonight's game, I'll answer that question. [Monday] was the first complete game of the year, so we're probably going to go through some pitching every night and how that manifests itself is how we'll react to it."
Jimenez – who has posted a 2.70 ERA over his last four starts – has taken advantage of the opportunity to start again. Left-hander Wade Miley has been unspectacular in seven starts since he was acquired the day before the nonwaiver trade deadline. His ERA with the Orioles is 7.15 ERA. Right-hander Yovani Gallardo, who started Tuesday night at Tropicana Field, has navigated through rough waters of his own to post four quality starts in his past six outings.
"I'm going to take each day, each situation and each matchup, and decide who our options are and what's our best chance to win that night," Showalter said. "We haven't had a surplus of starting pitching, so we will look at it.