Lakeland, Fla. — Chris Tillman evened out the balance of a spring training that began disastrously last week with a strong rebuttal Monday against the Detroit Tigers, scattering six hits and allowing one run in five innings while reversing the command problems that made his Grapefruit League debut last week against the Minnesota Twins so worrisome.
After walking six batters and allowing four runs without recording an out in the third inning his previous time out, Tillman didn't walk a batter and exhibited the command of the lower half of the strike zone that eluded him in his most-recent game action as the Orioles went on to win, 4-2.
“It was better,” Tillman said. “Much better. I was able to use all my pitches for the most part. I feel like everything got better toward the end. Fastball command was much better. I had some quick innings, and had some innings that I had to work through. That was good.”
“He was good today,” manager Buck Showalter said. “I thought his command of his fastball was a lot better — got a lot of outs in less than four pitches. We were hoping he'd go five [innings] and 80 [pitches] and that's what he did — five and a little less. A lot more efficient, a little bit better command of the breaking ball. Fastball was a lot better.”
Things started ominously for Tillman, who allowed a pair of singles to center fielder Leonys Martín and third baseman Jeimer Candelario to open the game before getting three consecutive flyouts for a scoreless first inning. He set the Tigers down in order in the second inning, then saw the only run on his account score in the third inning. In that sense, Showalter saw the way he settled in after a bit of early tension.
Dixon Machado smacked a high fastball into the right-field corner for a double, then scored two batters later on a double by Candelario before Tillman stranded him with a pair of groundouts. He worked around a two-out single in the fourth inning before navigating a jam in the fifth.
Machado yanked a double down the left-field line that hit third base on Tillman's first pitch of the inning, then was sacrificed to second base on the next pitch by Martín. But with a man on third and the infield in, Tillman got a grounder to first base and Pedro Álvarez got the ball home in time for Chance Sisco to apply the tag for the out.
Tillman won an eight-pitch battle with Miguel Cabrera to end his day at 78 pitches, with 49 strikes.
For Tillman, this spring is crucial to rebuilding some of the faith that evaporated as he struggled last year upon his return from a shoulder injury that kept him out until mid-May. He struggled with a 7.84 ERA and was pulled from the rotation in August.
He spent the entire offseason waiting for an opportunity in free agency before signing an incentive-laden major league deal with the Orioles early in spring training, with the team believing a fully healthy offseason and all the work Tillman did to get ready for the season would lead to different results.
So while he’s trying to get ready for the season, Tillman acknowledged that a start like this one on his ledger is important for both him and the Orioles.
“I think this close to the season … you want to see some results, especially more so for the staff and your teammates,” Tillman said. “I think they don't want to roll into the season and see you going out there giving it up. It was good. It was good to get out there and get rolling and get five [innings] under me.”
Showalter said he believes Tillman isn’t lacking the confidence that he can get major league hitters out after his delivery broke down last season, though acknowledged what an outing like this could do for him.
“He knows he can,” Showalter said. “It's there. It's just a matter of some things happening for him. I think Chris has been around long enough and is mature enough—it's not like he's 35, 40 years old. This guy's 30 [next month], I believe. I think he's got a lot of respect for the next level we're getting ready to go to. He's got a couple more outings left before he kicks it off. It was good progress today. I know he'll sleep a little better.”
Before the game, Showalter said a start like this would go a long way to "change the subject matter a little bit" this spring.
"I mean, he's going to pitch again — his next outing's against Minnesota [on Saturday]," Showalter said. "I have confidence that the results will get better. He feels good, physically. It's just hoping today is the start of that. If not, the next one.
"If you told me he was going to struggle statistically in the spring and pitch real well during the season, I'd be OK with that. I remember some guys that pitch real well in the spring that struggle once the season started, so I think from experience, I and we all here know sometimes it doesn't always correlate good and bad in the spring into regular season."
Tillman acknowledged that even with the results, there was plenty to work on. He settled around 90-92 mph with his fastball into the sixth inning, threw plenty of curveballs while seeing his slider and changeup come along as the day progressed. There were also well-hit balls that turned into outs, he said, and some batters he tried to pitch around in tight situations who ended up getting themselves out anyway.
“I think it's the process that counts,” Tillman said. “I've still got a long way to go. There's a lot of things I could have done better today, and I look forward to doing that next time.”
This time out, Tillman was made a winner thanks to a two-run home run by third base prospect Jomar Reyes, who was a last-minute fill-in in the lineup for Danny Valencia (calf). Catchers Chance Sisco (double, triple) and Andrew Susac (two singles) led the way offensively for the Orioles, with left fielder Alex Presley chipping in a pair of singles and scoring as well.