Sunday marked another step forward for Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman, who recorded a quality start despite issuing a season-high four walks, two of which ended up scoring in the Orioles’ 7-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox.
Tillman was one strike away from leaving the game tied after six innings, but catcher Francisco Pena tried to end the inning on his own. With the bases loaded and two outs, Pena made a nice block on a curveball in the dirt, but then rifled an errant throw trying to get Mitch Moreland off third base, the ball sailing past a diving Manny Machado and along the third-base line in foul ground, allowing two runs to score.
The Orioles split their four-game series against the Red Sox with Sunday’s loss and seemed to find their footing against at home, winning four of seven against the New York Yankees and Boston after their season-high seven-game losing streak. But they ended their series with Boston exactly where it began, trailing the Red Sox by 1 1/2 games for second place in the American League East.
And while Tillman recovered well from a long first inning – from the third through fifth innings, he retired nine straight – and rebounded from his shortest start of the season (a 2 2/3-inning outing against the Yankees on Tuesday), he’s still fighting to find the command that made him the Orioles’ most reliable starter the previous four seasons.
“A lot of it has got to do with who you are facing,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Tillman. ‘They make you grind. And Chris held it together – gave us a chance to win. I thought he was better than last time out. A little crisper earlier, found his way and gave us a chance against a really good pitcher and a good team.”
Tillman has struggled in the first inning, and the two earned runs he allowed in the opening frame Sunday gave him a 10.50 ERA in the first inning. The two walks Tillman issued in the first inning against Boston – a free pass to Andrew Benintendi with two batters into the game and an ensuing walk to Moreland two batters later loaded the bases with one out – set the stage for a two-run single by Jackie Bradley Jr.
The Orioles were given their own early gift – three runs in the first inning off Red Sox left-hander Chris Sale, who had not allowed a run in the first inning in any of his previous 11 starts – but Tillman could not take advantage.
“I don’t think there’s really a good time to walk guys,” Tillman said. “The timing isn’t an issue; it’s walks in general. Especially early on, setting the tempo. Guys got off to a pretty good start and to give that lead away, not good. You’ve got to be better from the get-go.”
In the sixth, Tillman couldn’t overcome two walks again. After allowing a leadoff single to Moreland, Tillman struck out Hanley Ramirez, but then walked Bradley and Pablo Sandoval back-to-back.
After striking out catcher Sandy Leon swinging at a curveball in the dirt, Tillman threw a 0-2 curveball that bounced in front of the plate and was corralled on a big hop by Pena, but Pena’s throw sailed to the foul side of the third-base line past Machado, gift-wrapping two runs for the Red Sox as Moreland and Bradley scored.
“What I saw was an unbelievable stop on a wild pitch,” Showalter said. “It's one of those things, you see and you go for it. It's just a tough lane to throw through. We weren't able to get an out there. But I'm more about blocking the pitch. I try to dwell on that part of it. I'm more about that part of it. Unbelievable block. I don't know how these guys do what they do.”
Pena said his view of third was partially blocked by Moreland along the baseline, which he said made him hesitate with his throw and yank it.
“But as a catcher, you’re always aggressive,” Pena said. “He’s giving you an out right there. You’ve got runners on base, and a guy that puts the ball in play a lot. I thought I had an opportunity, and I took it, but, bad throw. All I can do it is come back tomorrow and try and win a ballgame.”
As for Tillman, it’s been six starts since he returned from the disabled list. He missed the season’s first month recovering from shoulder problems that slowed his spring training and dated to August. All along, the Orioles and Tillman dismissed his unsteady minor league rehabilitation starts by saying they served as his spring training.
Tillman did record a quality start. The two runs he allowed in the sixth were unearned, so his six-inning, three earned-run start qualified. Over the past four seasons, Tillman has served as the club’s stopper, usually there to deliver a deep start when needed, but this season he’s battled to get through six innings.
Tillman is averaging 4.6 walks per nine innings, which is his most since 2010, and his walks and hits per innings pitched is 1.82, also the highest of his career and eighth worst among major league starters with 20 or more innings. But he sees incremental improvements getting the results he wants, even in a loss.
“Today was much better,” Tillman said. “I was glad I was able to take that step. I just wish early on I made a few better pitches, especially off-speed stuff. It’s out of the zone right out of the get-go and kind of forces you to use the fastball a little more in counts that you normally wouldn’t. You’ve got to be a little better with the off-speed stuff early on.”