DETROIT — Chris Tillman's return from the disabled list Sunday went well, so well that the return of the Orioles' top starter to a stabilized rotation with three weeks remaining in the season could do as much for their playoff chances as any win.
The pity is that they can't revel in it. Not yet, at least. Even with six strong innings completed and a victory earned in the team's 3-1, series-clinching win over the Detroit Tigers, there's no guarantee that the shoulder problem that has kept the right-hander out for much of the last month is behind Tillman.
The uncertainty surrounding the 16-game winner's role as the Orioles jostle for a playoff spot resurfaced Sunday evening at Comerica Park with the optimism of what Tillman's health and presence would mean for that push.
"It's good anytime you can get six innings, anytime you get that from a starter against that lineup," manager Buck Showalter said. "You come in here, and they're operating on a lot of cylinders. … I think the rest did him good. We're not out of the woods. We'll see how he feels tomorrow and the next day, and whether we need to give him an extra day next time out. We have that ability. We're going to put our best foot forward each day and see where it takes us. Hopefully, Chris is a part of that."
Tillman and Showalter were quick to say Sunday that he emerged without issue from his three-week hiatus with shoulder bursitis, after two bullpen sessions and no rehabilitation starts.
Against a loaded Tigers lineup, in the deciding game of a series chock-full of playoff implications, it was touch-and-go in the first inning or so, with Tillman missing badly with his control. He threw high to his arm side, pulled pitches to miss low across his body and struggled to find his delivery. Even when he was in the strike zone, he was missing up, a dangerous proposition against the Tigers.
At least early, the performance seemed to mirror his Aug. 20 start against the Houston Astros, in which he walked five batters and allowed six runs in two innings. The trip to the DL began shortly thereafter.
Tillman said that even as his start was unfolding, he was sure that rust, not injuries, had caused him to search for control early. He said the same after he struggled against Houston.
"I could tell by the way it feels," Tillman said. "It was the same way in the bullpen. It got better every bullpen, but it's just a feel thing for me. … It was definitely a little bit of rust there, but I felt like we were able to work through it and make pitches when we had to. I made some big pitches in some big situations and was fortunate enough to get through that one."
He established himself gradually after that first inning. The third inning almost went sideways after a leadoff double by third baseman Erick Aybar, but center fielder Adam Jones made a pair of spectacular catches to leave him at second base.
The only blemish on Tillman's afternoon came when left fielder Justin Upton led off the fifth inning with a walk, then came around to score after two-out singles by shortstop Jose Iglesias and second baseman Ian Kinsler.
His command of his fastball came along by the end of the outing, complemented by a breaking ball that resulted in several outs and by a changeup that kept the Tigers off balance all day.
Tillman started the sixth inning with 89 pitches but needed just 16 to retire the heart of Detroit's order for a third time and secure a quality start. He left having allowed a run on four hits with a walk and four strikeouts.
Even so, Showalter said there was constant tension in the dugout.
"We watch every pitch, every facial expression," Showalter said. "[If] you know Chris as well as we do, you're on top of it. You're not walking to him after every pitch [asking], 'How does that feel? How does this feel? How does that feel?' Pitchers don't want that. He'll tell us. He's mature and he knows. He told us last time. … You build that trust with the players because they want to be in a position to contribute, and if they're not feeling well, they can't."
Tillman desperately wants to be. He said life on the DL is boring, and considering that this most recent trip might have cost him a chance to become a 20-game winner, he was glad to be back and help the Orioles win a big game and big series.
But there's no celebration over their top starter's status, at least not yet.
"I'll just see how I feel," Tillman said. "When this first kind of cropped up, I pitched in Oakland and felt fine, then the next day, it wasn't all that hot. I'll just see how I feel. Signs are pointing good, but we'll see. We'll see how it goes."