Whether the Orioles have reached the end of the rope with right-hander Chris Tillman remains to be seen, but as the team’s former ace continues to struggle mightily — failing to get out of the second inning in his second consecutive start in Thursday night’s 11-6 win over the Kansas City Royals — the discussions are becoming more frequent regarding how much longer the team can sustain the short starts Tillman is providing the club every fifth game.
Tillman lasted just 1 1/3 innings Thursday, allowing six runs (five earned) on four hits and three walks. He allowed eight of the 11 batters he faced reach base, including the first four batters of the game, a series that culminated with Salvador Pérez’s grand slam over the high scoreboard in right field. In Tillman’s previous start, he lasted just two batters into the second inning. In his past two outings, he has retired just six of the 22 batters he’s faced.
“It’s frustrating anytime it happens,” Tillman said. “One in a row, two in a row. It really doesn’t matter. It’s always frustration. As starters we know we’ve got to get deeper in the game and give the team a better chance to win than that.”
After the game, manager Buck Showalter wouldn’t say whether the rotation spot belonging to Tillman — who had been the club’s most consistent starter from 2013 to 2016 before shoulder problems began a steady decline — is in jeopardy, but he also provided the least backing he’s given this season.
“We’ll look at it and if there’s an adjustment we’re ready to make and how we’re comfortable how it affects everything else,” Showalter said. “Nobody knows better than Chris and everybody involved that that’s not good enough to get us where we need to. He’s had a couple decent games, but it’s just been frustrating for him and us.”
Tillman echoed his words from his start May 3 in Anaheim against the Los Angeles Angels, saying he must focus on better results and not on whether his job is in jeopardy.
“I can’t worry about that. I’ve got to focus on what I’ve got to do to get better,” Tillman said. “That’s the bottom line. I have to. I’ve gotta stay focused on the game plan and keep working.”
Because of Tillman’s early exit, the Orioles bullpen had to account for eight innings, and Miguel Castro, Tanner Scott and Mychal Givens combined to keep the Royals scoreless over that span and set the stage for an Orioles comeback with their best offensive output of the season. Castro, who was considered for a starting role during spring training before the Orioles added Tillman, Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb, pitched 4 2/3 shutout innings, perhaps putting him in a situation where he could replace Tillman when his next turn in the rotation comes up.
“It’s frustrating,” Tillman said of his struggles. “It’s really frustrating for me. I can see it. I can feel it. I’m just not getting it done. It’s not good right now. I’ve got to make better pitches, I’ve gotta get ahead way more often. It changes quick, but you’ve got to set yourself up for success.”
On Thursday, Tillman battled his control — a staple of his early-season struggles — and put himself into an early hole in the first inning when he loaded the bases with back-to-back walks to Jorge Soler and Mike Moustakas after Jon Jay’s single to center opened the game.
Tillman then got ahead of Pérez on a pair of sliders, but then hung an 89-mph four-seamer that Pérez turned on and sent off the bottom part of the railing above the right-field scoreboard.
A 5-4-3 double play helped him escape further damage in the inning, but things didn’t get better for Tillman in the second. He opened the inning with a four-pitch walk to No. 8 hitter Cheslor Cuthbert, but then induced what should have been a double-play ball to third baseman Jace Peterson, but second baseman Jonathan Schoop dropped the throw to second — he did the same thing in Wednesday night’s game — leaving runners at first and second.
Jay’s sacrifice bunt moved both runners into scoring position, and Soler’s two-run single on a full-count changeup chased Tillman from the game.
Tillman, who has a season ERA of 10.46, has failed to go beyond two innings in three of his seven starts.
The Orioles re-signed Tillman to a one-year, $3 million major league deal during spring training, convinced he had overcome last year’s horrendous season in which he had a 7.84 ERA in 24 appearances (19 starts).
Seven starts into this season, Tillman has been worse, and since the beginning of the 2017 season, no major league pitcher with more than six major league starts over that stretch has a higher ERA than Tillman’s 8.42 over the past two seasons.
Few pitchers receive as many opportunities to start — 26 over the past two seasons — when they’ve struggled as much as Tillman has, but his track record of success before 2017 (he averaged 32 starts, 14 wins, 190 innings and a 3.91 ERA from 2013 to 2016) has unquestionably played a role in the patience the team has had with him.
“Everybody here has gone through tough times,” left fielder Trey Mancini said. “Tilly is one of the best teammates and best guys I've ever played with. Look at everything he's done for this organization since he's been here — since he was traded over. He and Adam [Jones] and some of the other guys in here were really the faces of kind of the renaissance, if you want to say that, of the Orioles. Going to the playoffs, he was the ace of that staff for a long time. He's done so much for the organization and the city, so yeah, it's tough to see any of your teammates struggle, but a guy like Tilly, you always cheer for.”
The Orioles have few choices with Tillman. They could send him to the bullpen and allow him to work out his problems, but they tried that last year with little success. They could also try to send him to the minors, but he’d have to agree to an outright assignment, and only after he cleared waivers. It would seem unlikely that any team would claim him because they’d also have to take on the remainder of his contract — about $2.3 million — as well as all of his contract’s incentives. And he could refuse an assignment and then become a free agent.
When Tillman re-signed with the Orioles, the sides committed to the idea that if Tillman was going to rebound, it was best he do it in an Orioles uniform. The Orioles potentially would get the Tillman of old back for a year, and he could use the opportunity to boost his stock in next year’s free-agent class while taking advantage of some lofty incentives.
Now the question is how willing are the Orioles to continue investing in Tillman.
“We always will look at ways to get better and see how it fits and what the repercussions of that is in other areas,” Showalter said. “You’re always trying to give guys an opportunity and give them as much rope, so to speak, that they can get back on track, and it’s been a challenge for Chris.”