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Chris Tillman's rough first spring start continues troubling trend for Orioles starters

Orioles starting pitcher Chris Tillman (30) throws against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning of a spring training baseball game Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Dunedin, Fla.
Orioles starting pitcher Chris Tillman (30) throws against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning of a spring training baseball game Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Dunedin, Fla. (Chris OMeara / AP)

It was just Chris Tillman's first Grapefruit League start, and second game action of the spring after being limited by a hip strain that pushed back his debut.

Yet his outing Tuesday — in which he walked to the edge of the cliff, loaded the bases against the heart of the Toronto Blue Jays lineup in the second inning and was pulled back into the dugout by manager Buck Showalter after reaching his pitch count — fits too comfortably into the growing concern about the starting rotation to be qualified by that.

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It's early for everyone, but for a staff that entered the season with questions, answers have been few.

"They know what the competition is going to be like, and they know the level they're going to have to be at," Showalter said. "And it's going to have to be more like '14 instead of '15."

This start was meant to be a challenge for Tillman, who Showalter wanted to face the highest level of competition possible this spring after the hip flexor strain cost him nearly two weeks of games. He was one of several Orioles starters who regressed in 2015, failing to hit 200 innings for the first time since 2012 and finishing with a 4.99 ERA in 31 starts.

And so his proper spring debut came against a nearly full-strength Blue Jays lineup that has tagged him with a career 5.79 ERA in 20 career starts, and an 11.72 ERA against Toronto in six starts in 2015.

It ultimately did prove challenging, though nearly every start by an Orioles pitcher of late has proven to be.

Because he'd only thrown two innings of a "B" game so far this spring, Tillman was pulled after hitting his pitch count of 51 pitches. He recorded just five outs, with the pitch limit preventing a statistical line that would have fit tidily with the rest of the Orioles starters of late.

Instead, he allowed two runs on five hits and three walks. He and Showalter felt good about his stuff and how he located it overall, but the appearance had a lot in common with what ailed him in 2015, including a slow start.

Leadoff hitter Kevin Pillar raked a line-drive double off the left-field wall on Tillman's second pitch of the game, and with one out, three straight singles by Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, and Chris Colabello scored a pair for Toronto. None was particularly well-hit — Bautista's was a blooper over shortstop Paul Janish, and Colabello's was only slightly harder.

Just as was often the case in 2015, the early lead the Orioles staked Tillman to was gone.

In the second inning, it was more danger, made worse by the fact that he got two outs — one on a swinging strikeout off a fastball to Ryan Goins — after a cheap leadoff double to open the frame.

Next came reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson, who Tillman gave a heavy dose of off-speed pitches en route to a seven-pitch walk, and Bautista, against whom Tillman worked back from a 3-0 count but ultimately walked to load the bases.

Then Showalter walked out to take the ball from Tillman, and right-hander Tyler Wilson induced a long fly ball to the right-field fence that Nolan Reimold bobbled but caught to end the inning.

It was the secondary pitches that Tillman said let him down.

"I made a lot of good pitches with my fastball and could have stuck with that a bit more, but I wanted to get that feel for the breaking ball, which they made contact with," Tillman said. "I threw quite a few of them today and it was good, just a little inconsistent.

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"It always takes me a little while to get going [with my curveball], and it's that way throughout the year, too. It was better than it has been in the past, so I was happy with it."

His fastball command was otherwise where he wanted to be, and Showalter commended his arm strength. There are others on the staff whose performances would be greater cause for early concern.

"The results aren't there yet," Showalter said.

That has been the case more often than not for the Orioles starters this spring. After another solid performance by Wilson (3 1/3 scoreless innings, two hits), Showalter emphasized his rotation isn't quite set.

Showalter has lamented the lack of crispness and location from several of his starters over the past week, like Yovani Gallardo (five earned runs and three home runs allowed in 2 1/3 innings Monday) and Miguel Gonzalez (six earned runs on seven hits in 1 2/3 innings on Sunday).

Tillman narrowly avoided a line like that, but took heart in the fact that he was able to get his work in, even if it was against Toronto. He said he feels physically fine, and will use any opportunity against any competition — however good — to ensure he gets the work he needs to be ready for his first start in April.

"I'm in the position right now because of the hip thing that I did have, I've got to get out there and pitch regardless of who it is, and allow me to get myself right," Tillman said. "It doesn't really matter who's hitting or who we're playing against. I have to be able to get out there and pitch every fifth day."

"Oh yeah, I think it's good for him," Showalter said. "I just think that we're at that point where, you know, I don't need a reminder of the standard that they have to have, but it serves a lot better as you go forward with that as opposed to pitching in a Single-A game or against Puerto Rico with a bunch of 19-year-old guys."

twitter.com/JonMeoli

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