After early struggles, Chris Tillman set to lead Orioles in Game 1
By EDUARDO A. ENCINA
The Baltimore Sun|
Oct 01, 2014 | 10:05 PM
Chris Tillman shies away from talking about his accomplishments this season because he doesn't want to give the inclination that he's satisfied with the steps he has taken.
He had a remarkable second half, continued his emergence as a leader in the Orioles starting rotation and continued to gain the confidence of manager Buck Showalter.
Tillman admits he's much more comfortable on the mound than he is talking about himself. And he knows success is fleeting over a long baseball season. To Tillman, it wasn't that long ago when he went through a rough patch of early-season struggles that had him re-examining his approach and searching for answers.
Ahead is a new, uncharted challenge. When the 26-year-old right-hander takes the mound Thursday as the Orioles' starting pitcher in Game 1 of the best-of-five American League Division Series matchup against the pitching-rich Detroit Tigers at Camden Yards, he will be making his postseason debut.
"You take it for what it's worth," Tillman said. "My job is the same. You've got to be a little bit better. You've got to limit the damage. Every time you have the opportunity to make good pitches, make your defense work, and they've done that all year, and they'll continue to do that."
Tillman was on the Orioles' ALDS roster in 2012, but he was one of two players who didn't play in the series.
He was one of two options to start a must-win Game 4 at Yankee Stadium — Showalter even sent both Tillman and left-hander Joe Saunders to the podium for the news conference with the starting pitcher the day before the game — but the Orioles opted for Saunders. Tillman was available out of the bullpen, but he never pitched.
"I understood it," Tillman said. "It was not my decision. At the same time, I was able to experience it. I was there. It was electric. I got the chills every game. Every time the phone rang, I got probably the most nervous I had ever been because I was uncomfortable with [pitching in relief]. …
"Not getting the opportunity to pitch made me want to more. But I understood it. It's baseball. We were trying to win. You have to put your best guy forward, and that's what we did."
Two years later, Showalter has tabbed Tillman to open the postseason. Starting strong is crucial in a best-of-five series, and Tillman consistently has been able to put his team in a position to win in the last couple seasons.
He followed up his breakout 16-win season last year with another strong campaign in 2014, going 13-6 with a 3.34 ERA. He was 6-1 with a 2.33 ERA in 14 starts in the second half.
Before his last start of the season on Friday — which was essentially just a tune-up for the postseason — Tillman recorded 20 consecutive starts in which he allowed three earned runs or fewer, tied with Steve Barber for the second-longest streak in Orioles history. In that span, he had a 2.21 ERA and held opponents to a .214 batting average.
The Orioles have won 11 of his last 12 starts, the only loss coming last week in Toronto. And Tillman followed up his first 200-inning season last year with another, totaling a career-high 207 1/3 innings.
"He took a big step last year, and I think the big step he took [this year] was that he backed it up again," Showalter said. "He pitched 200 innings again. He won  games again. How many games has [he] won the past two years?  I think that's showing consistency. That's graduating, too."
It is that approach that has made Tillman a leader among the Orioles staff.
Tillman — a key piece of the February 2008 trade with the Seattle Mariners by Andy MacPhail that also landed center fielder Adam Jones in exchange for left-hander Erik Bedard — made his major league debut in 2009 just two months after his 21st birthday.
He bounced around between the major leagues and Triple-A Norfolk for most of the next two seasons as he searched for consistency, with his career ERA above 5.00, before he rejoined the team on July 4, 2012 and threw 8 1/3 scoreless innings against his former team in Seattle.
Tillman finished that season with a 9-3 record and a 2.93 ERA, and it served as a springboard into 2013. He went back to basics and made everything simpler — his delivery and his approach —and it paid off with his first trip to the All-Star Game.
This year, Tillman started Opening Day for the Orioles and began the season with a 4-2 record and 3.34 ERA heading into a May 21 start against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. In that game, he allowed eight runs, seven hits and three walks in one-plus inning.
Three starts later, on the road against the Texas Rangers on June 5, Tillman failed to get out of the second inning again. He was charged with five runs, six hits and three walks in that game.
"It kind of went down the drain real fast," Tillman said. "It went downhill, and it was a year when I had to make some serious adjustments early just to be competitive. … After I had three or four bad ones in a row, I think we kind of had to — not really jump ship and go to plan B — but we had to reassess and make some adjustments."
'Still a work in progress'
Tillman turned to pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti, who helped to rework his mechanics, and results followed. After the start against Texas, his streak of 20 straight starts of not allowing more than three earned runs started.
Tillman has struggled early in games — his ERA in the first two innings of games is 5.18 compared to 2.31 in the third inning and later. But he learned how to get through the first two frames by limiting the damage and using his four-pitch mix throughout the game.
"You're going to go out there maybe five or six times when you have so many things working that we don't have to do a whole lot," Showalter said. "He's kept us engaged. The first inning or two might not look good, but he always figures out a way to keep us in a game."
Tillman admits that he is probably his toughest critic, which is why he won't give himself too much credit for this season.
"It's exciting, but at the same time, you know it's still work in progress," Tillman said. "There's always room to get better, and from Day One, there's always hiccups. There have been every start. That's my main focus. From start to start, try to figure out how to get better for the next time."
Rookie right-hander Kevin Gausman, the youngest member of the starting rotation this year, said he often looks to Tillman for advice.
"It's fun to watch him when he has a start when he feels like he didn't pitch well and he really went seven innings and only gave up one run," Gausman said. "He's thinking about how he shouldn't have walked a guy. He's very tough on himself. I think he's a perfectionist."
Tillman's grit has been evident to the other pitchers in the rotation, which produced four 10-game winners for the first time since 1997, also the last season the Orioles won the American League East.
And on Thursday, he will be entrusted with setting the tone for the club's potential postseason run.
"He just leads by example," Gausman said. "He really doesn't talk too much, but it seems like whenever there's a big game and he's pitching and we really need a win, he steps his game up. When guys get on base, he gets better. He just continues to get better. … I kind of like to think of him as a silent assassin."