Even before a shoulder injury that has limited him in the past two seasons changed Chris Tillman, perhaps permanently, it was always in the Orioles' best interest to wait out a rough first inning or two and let him find his fastball.
Often enough, he'd overcome whatever damage was inflicted early and settle in for the kind of competitive start that made him the team's top starter through its recent run as a contender. He even did it last week.
Tuesday was not one of those nights. The Orioles bullpen was up in the third inning, and Tillman was pulled shortly thereafter, having allowed five runs — three on solo home runs — while recording eight outs in an 8-3 loss. He never found anything, fastball included, and manager Buck Showalter could tell early that he wasn't going to.
"Chris wasn't very crisp and just didn't pitch very well," Showalter said. "Today, he just never seemed to take it to another level and find his way. A lot of times I can see in the first inning or two he's a pitch away and then he gets in step — like a lot of pitchers, not just him.
"Today, it was pretty obvious to me that he wasn't going to be able to find that step. He was really struggling to find tempo and a consistent release point. You look back through where he was trying to throw the ball. There weren't many pitches executed on his part. He knows that."
Tillman's third pitch of the game was a two-seam fastball that leadoff hitter Brett Gardner hit just over the right-field scoreboard for an early 1-0 lead, the first homer Tillman allowed this season. Matt Holliday hit another homer on a slider over the plate two batters later, and it never really got better from there.
Tillman got through the first inning with no further damage, but a double by shortstop Didi Gregorius to open the second inning turned into the Yankees' third run when Aaron Hicks singled him home.
Holliday opened the third inning with another home run, this on a two-seamer inside that caught a lot of the plate. Holliday wasn't fooled — in fact, he hung back on the pitch and still swung early, pulling it to left field. It's the way a hitter might react to a breaking ball, but it was Tillman's fastball. It's never been overpowering, but it was effective because of the deception in his delivery, and because he could locate it. Neither was true Tuesday.
His four-seam fastball, which he threw 13 times out of his 59 pitches, maxed out at 92.8 mph but averaged 90.7, according to Statcast readings from Baseball Savant. But just three were in the strike zone, and many missed arm-side, indicative of a pitcher searching for his mechanics.
As for the two-seamer, it was up in the zone and hit well. It's represented a trend all year as he deals with a fastball that's 2 mph slower than in years past.
Tillman's four-seam and two-seam fastball yielded 14 of the 25 hits he allowed this year, accounting for 56 percent of them, though just 44 percent of his pitches have been fastballs. He's had to rely on the guile that comes with being a 29-year-old pitcher with nearly six full seasons of major league experience to get through, not to mention the slider he added last year to complement his changeup and curveball.
Neither Showalter or Tillman believes any of the struggles with his command at times or his velocity all season is related to the shoulder injury that cost him three weeks last August and three weeks at the beginning of this season, lingering all the way in between.
"I don't think so," Tillman said. "I really don't. I think it's more of an execution thing than it is arm strength. Maybe mechanical, too, but that's an easy excuse. When you're off mechanically, I feel like you're out there trying to search and search and search and try to find the right one to make pitches."
Showalter added: "Chris is a good communicator, and he understands how important it is, the job he's being asked to do, to be done. He's not going to put the team in harm's way if he doesn't feel like he can do it. But we'll continue to talk to him about [it]. He's not one of those guys that's going to reach for some excuse when things aren't going well — 'Oh, there's the reason.' He's a good guy about looking in the mirror."
This version of Tillman has been enough to prevent nights like Tuesday from biting him to this point. In his debut May 7, he didn't allow an earned run in five innings. He made it 4 1/3 innings and allowed three runs May 13 in Kansas City before posting a quality start with six innings and three earned runs allowed May 19.
Tuesday's fate, however, almost happened when he didn't have his fastball command early in last Wednesday's 4-3 loss to the Minnesota Twins at Camden Yards. The visitors scored all four of their runs in the first two innings before Tillman settled in and kept them off the board for his final three innings.
There was no such settling Tuesday. Showalter has been Tillman's manager for long enough to know when to let him figure it out and when not to. He had Verrett ready in that third inning by the time Tillman allowed a single to right fielder Aaron Judge, issued a two-out walk to Hicks, and watched Judge score the Yankees' fifth run on a single by third baseman Chase Headley.
Tillman kicked the mound in frustration when he saw Showalter bounce out of the dugout. His ERA was 5.87. He's allowed 44 base runners in 23 innings.
"It kind of snowballed tonight," Tillman said. "They came out hacking and they never stopped."