After an interminable first inning against a foe that crushed him all through 2015, a slider that Orioles starter Chris Tillman is only now growing comfortable with helped him regain control and pitch his best start of the season.
Tillman needed 55 pitches to get through a tenuous first two innings in Thursday's 3-2, come-from-behind win over the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards. But he settled in to allow two runs on four hits and three walks with four strikeouts in six innings thanks to his newfound faith in the slider he has been working on for years.
It wasn't his best pitch of the night — that distinction, he said, went to his curveball. But it was a big part of him keeping the Orioles within reach for what became an important series win.
"It's an effective pitch for me now," Tillman said. "Before, it was just a show."
To hear catcher Matt Wieters tell it, the pitch is right on schedule to begin to be a weapon for Tillman.
"I've talked with a lot of pitchers, a lot of pitching coaches," Wieters said before the game. "Normally, it takes about three years to really develop a pitch, and I'd say it's probably three, four years from when he started throwing the slider to now. That's why I think that's become even more of a pitch for him now than in the past. I think it's more just the fact of him getting more and more reps with it. It's definitely getting better."
Tillman entered the game throwing the pitch, which can act more as a cutter at harder velocities and break more like a slider in the lower bands, 6.4 percent of the time in his career. Most pitch tracking systems refer to it as a cutter, but it's more often than not a slider.
Tillman deployed the pitch 7.4 percent of the time last season according to Brooks Baseball, but entering Thursday, he had more than doubled his usage in 2016. Thirty of the 190 pitches he threw over the course of his first three starts were sliders, good for 15.8 percent of his pitches.
He threw 18 sliders in 105 pitches Thursday (17.1 percent), and leaned on the pitch against a lineup full of right-handed batters who hadn't seen the pitch before. He used his other two secondary pitches just as frequently, throwing 18 changeups and 22 curveballs.
But in neutralizing a Blue Jays lineup that beat him four times and tagged him with an 11.72 ERA last season, Tillman had a weapon he's only now starting to work in more.
"When guys have more options, it gives you more to think about," Wieters said. "The slider's not just a token fourth pitch anymore. He's actually willing to use it in a tough situation."
Those tough situations came quickly, as Tillman coughed up a lead two batters into the game. He put a third base runner on when he walked designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion on a slider down and away, and was on pace for much worse with Troy Tulowitzki at the plate. The final pitch of an eight-pitch at-bat was a slider with which Tillman caught a lot of the plate, and Tulowitzki rocked it to the left-field wall for a long, strong flyout.
Tillman also recorded the final out of the inning, a groundout, on the slider. It was a 38-pitch first inning for Tillman, but it wasn't until the second time through the order in the third inning that he really started mixing in a pitch he now has more faith in.
In a 13-pitch third inning, Tillman got three swinging strikes and one strikeout on the slider, all while mixing in a fastball that at its peak sat 94-95 mph and hit 96 once in another long at-bat by Tulowitzki.
Tillman coaxed all three outs — a groundout, then an unassisted line-drive double play to shortstop J.J. Hardy — off the slider in the fourth inning, and relied on it heavily during a long at-bat by right fielder Jose Bautista in the fifth inning.
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"Early on, it wasn't what it needed to be," Tillman said. "But it came along."
Entering the game, Wieters said he'd have no trouble calling for the slider in tough situations. He frequently started off righties with it Thursday.
"I see the confidence he's getting in it," Wieters said. "It doesn't matter what the pitch is. If a guy on the mound has the confidence to throw it, it gives the catcher confidence to be able to call it. Once you get enough game action with it, he's seen the results."
It wasn't only the slider that did it for him Thursday, though. Tillman's fastball command improved after the first inning, and he carried the harder velocity he has enjoyed all season deep into the game. He had one swinging strikeout apiece on his fastball, changeup, curveball and slider.
"If you look at the matchup, there's not many people who haven't had a little success against him [in Toronto's lineup] so after that first inning, it would be easy to go, 'Here we go again,'" manager Buck Showalter said. "That wasn't Chris. Chris said, 'I'm going to find a way to get my club to the sixth inning with a chance to win,' and he did. That was probably the key to the game."