Orioles beat writer Jon Meoli talks about manager Buck Showalter choosing starter Chris Tillman to be the team's Opening Day starter. (Baltimore Sun video)
SARASOTA, FLA. — Chris Tillman tried not to look too much into being named Opening Day starter for the third straight year, but he was honored to have his name mentioned as part of an elite group of Orioles pitchers.
Manager Buck Showalter announced Monday that Tillman will start the Orioles' season opener on April 4 against the Minnesota Twins and become just the fourth pitcher in club history – joining Mike Mussina, Jim Palmer and Dave McNally – to start three straight Opening Day games.
He will be the first Oriole to start three consecutive season openers since Mussina from 1998-2000.
"I've got a long way to go," Tillman said about his name being mentioned alongside Mussina's. "That's special. It really is. Any time you get put into the category with that guy, you know you've done something.
"But at the same time, like I've said every year we've had this talk, we're only as good as the guy we have out there that night. And I think our team has all the confidence in the world in all of our guys and I think that's what helps us go about our business. We trust each other and we believe in each other. I'd be more than confident with anybody doing it."
The Orioles' rotation includes three pitchers who have made Opening Day starts. Newcomer Yovani Gallardo made five straight Opening Day starts for the Milwaukee Brewers from 2010-14. Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez started back-to-back openers for the Colorado Rockies in 2010 and 2011. Showalter said he considered all three for the nod, and added that Gallardo would have been a strong consideration had he not signed late.
"Every guy is our Opening Day starter," Showalter said. "We better look at it that way. … [Tillman] been with us a while and he knows all the things that go along with it, but so do Yovani and Ubaldo."
The 27-year-old Tillman hopes to rebound from a rocky 2015 that saw him struggle to an 11-11 record and a 4.99 ERA in 31 starts. The Orioles' rotation posted a combined 4.53 ERA, a mark that was second-worst in the American League last year.
Before last year, Tillman emerged as the Orioles' ace, posting back-to-back 200-innings seasons in 2013 and 2014, going a combined 29-13 with a 3.52 ERA.
Tillman's spring started with a hip flexor strain that delayed his first spring start nearly two weeks. His spring training numbers aren't impressive – he owns a 9.31 ERA in 9 2/3 Grapefruit League innings – but Tillman said he feels prepared for the season after spending the spring focusing on getting ready for the season rather than being caught up in results. Showalter commended Tillman for coming into the spring in what he believed might be the best physical shape of his career.
"I think I'm in a good spot right now, mentally, and I think that comes from the work we've done with [pitching coach Dave Wallace] and [bullpen coach] Dom [Chiti]. We did some work early in spring training and I think it's helped a lot and I think as far as I'm concerned, off paper, off everything else, I think I'm throwing the ball as well as I have, physically and mentally as good as I've had in a long time.
"Sometimes it's frustrating to hear that from people because the numbers aren't there, but that's not exactly what we're here for," Tillman added. "We're here to get better for our teammates and relay that to them. I think you should come in with a game plan every day. If you do that, it's a victory in your own mind."
While the front end of the Orioles rotation is set – Gallardo and Jimenez would likely start the second and third games in some order – right-hander Kevin Gausman will open the season on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis, and right-hander Miguel Gonzalez goes into the final days of spring still battling for his rotation spot against Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright and Vance Worley.
Heading into the season, the Orioles' starting rotation remains its biggest question mark.
"I think the biggest victory you can take out of spring is coming out healthy," Tillman said. "I think that's for anybody. And having the confidence you're doing what you need to do to get ready for the season. Everyone wants to see the results and the numbers and this and that. It's important, but I tell you what, there ain't a single [one of us] out here trying to give up hits and trying to give up runs. That's all crap. We have certain things we come into spring that you want to work on and at the same time get guys out and I think if you give in to what you're trying to work on, that's a loss in itself."
Showalter said the final decision on making Tillman the Opening Day starter was made Sunday, when the Orioles had to start deciding how the rotation will be aligned for the beginning of the season. Tillman was told Monday morning.
"We've been talking about it back and forth," Showalter said. "You always come back to it, but you let it play out. You end up spending a lot of brainpower on things that will reveal itself to you. You keep letting it come to you. You keep putting it out there and taking in the things that are created and seeing where guys are physically."