SARASOTA, FLA. — To both Chris Tillman and the Orioles, their reunion this spring was consummated under the assumption that the veteran right-hander wasn't going to resemble in either performance or his pitching motion the man who struggled through last year.
In the low-pressure environs of the back fields of Ed Smith Stadium, facing his own teammates in the closest thing to a game situation that he's had this spring, pitching coach Roger McDowell found that more clear than ever.
"He liked it," Tillman said of his pitching coach. "He said that I actually changed a lot more this offseason than we had worked on last year. I didn't feel like I did, but having someone see it, that's good."
Last year, after a spring training that saw Tillman unable to get his regular preparation in due to a shoulder injury, he struggled with his mechanics and form from the time he made his debut in early May to the end of the season.
From the time his shoulder injury cropped up in August 2016 on, he's seen a drastic dip in his release point, which caused his secondary pitches to lose shape and at times made it as if he was casting the ball.
Tillman showed no signs of that on Saturday in the 42-pitch simulated game, and manager Buck Showalter said he looked stronger in his landing and more confidently deliberate in his delivery.
For Tillman himself, the benefit of the simulated game — other than getting his work in — was just to begin spring training. Last year, he couldn't pitch in the intrasquad game as planned and had several bullpen sessions scrapped before he was shut down with another shoulder injection.
"It went well," Tillman said. " Right now, it's just getting up and down. That was a big part of that one. I went 15-20, then sat down a little bit and got another 15-20. I wanted to see what I had been seeing in bullpens, which I did for the most part. Any time you go out there for the first time, you're going to have... I was a little excited. But that's part of it."
While his schedule would put him on track to pitch again Thursday, the Orioles play the division rival Toronto Blue Jays, and Showalter will likely shield Tillman from them at this early stage. That would make for another simulated game situation, but Tillman said facing teammates can be just as valuable as facing opponents.
"I think at some point you're going to have to," Tillman said. "I don't see a need right at this moment. I'm not panicking by any means. It's going to have to happen sooner or later. But I think that was part of the reason why [Mark] Trumbo got in there, [Craig] Gentry got in there. We talked after. They're just as good at giving me a read as the other guys are—although they're probably nicer about it. I asked them not to be nice. They were helpful."
Manager Buck Showalter agreed with Tillman’s assessment that he’s ahead of schedule so far.
“That's one of the attractions for us signing him — bringing him back — was what he was able to do this year that he wasn't able to do last year,” Showalter said. “I think Chris wants to not — he's in a situation now where he's in a lot better pitching shape, so he can now do some things he wasn't able to do last year between now and then time we break camp or whenever his first start may be during the regular season. Whether it equates to more success, it certainly doesn't hurt. But when you have a history with someone like him, we know what he does leading into camp when things are good. Last year wasn't.”
Mountcastle making the most of opportunity
Infielder Ryan Mountcastle, one of the Orioles' top hitting prospects, is showing his prowess at the plate this spring as a non-roster invitee. With a home run and three doubles in 16 at-bats, he's made an impression over the first week-plus of games — but he's hoping to take away from the experience as much as he leaves.
"It's been a great experience being with these guys, picking up bits and pieces and starting to feel good, getting ready for the season," Mountcastle said.
He came to spring training after an Arizona Fall League campaign that saw him continue his transition to third base from shortstop while trying to regain his swing after a late-season swoon at Double-A Bowie.
There's little doubt about his bat, with easy hands and a good eye that allows him to get to fastballs on time while waiting for breaking balls and taking them the other way, will continue to develop. But Mountcastle knows his defense will determine his major league future.