April 21, 2018: Indians starter Mike Clevinger pitched his first career shutout. He gave up only two hits in nine innings. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
Progress for Chris Tillman wasn't enough to earn him his first win in just under a year Saturday against the Cleveland Indians, but the Orioles right-hander took a step toward emerging from the hole created by three miserable starts to open the season.
In the Orioles' 4-0 loss at Camden Yards – a setback that dropped the team to 6-15 as Cleveland right-hander Mike Clevinger tossed a two-hit shutout – Tillman displayed better control against a dangerous Indians lineup, but was done in by three solo home runs.
Had the Orioles offense done more to support Tillman, the improvement would've been more impactful. But now 21 games into the season, scoring runs has been a struggle. The Orioles have scored two runs or fewer nine times and scored three runs or fewer 14 times. Saturday's game marked the second time in this young season that the Orioles were on the wrong end of a complete-game shutout. The Minnesota Twins' José Berríos also accomplished that on April 1.
"He was better," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Tillman. "Obviously, there was very little margin for error with Clevinger. Did some things a lot better, somewhat better and hopefully it's something to build on. What did he give up, three solo home runs? Usually, that type of outing gives us a quality chance to win. There were a couple pitches he'd probably like to have back. Got out of that first inning, but we just didn't do much. The story was their pitcher and our inability to solve much off him. Hit a couple balls hard, that's about it. More than that a little bit. I thought a couple guys hit balls they ran down."
Tillman, who entered the day with an 11.91 ERA, had his longest start of the season at six innings, but struggled to get through his final frame. He overcame some early control problems. He threw two wild pitches in the first two innings, including one that eventually led to the game's first run being scored on Michael Brantley's RBI groundout in the first inning. He also received some help defensively. A double-play ball got Tillman out of a two-on, one-out jam in the third. Catcher Chance Sisco threw out Brantley attempting to steal second to empty the bases before Yonder Alonso hit Cleveland's third homer off Tillman in the sixth.
"[Had] command with all the pitches really," Tillman said. "I was able to use both sides of the plate with the fastball and I think that's all a big help. My off-speed was there for the most part. … It was a big stepping stone. Anytime you're able to find your command, I think that's the first part of any process. … It was there for the most part throughout the game."
The command problems that plagued Tillman (0-4) in his previous outing improved, after he allowed seven runs (six earned) in two innings on April 13 in Boston, prompting the Orioles to skip his turn in the rotation to give him two work days to battle through his struggles.
Tillman threw 14 first-pitch strikes to 25 batters, but in allowing solo homers to José Ramírez and Alonso in in the sixth inning, he fell behind both hitters 3-1 before yielding long balls.
It was just the second time in four starts that Tillman reached the sixth inning, and in his previous long outing on April 7 at the New York Yankees, he let four of his five hitters reach base in the sixth and gave up two runs in the inning before he was pulled. He felt much better about his sixth inning Saturday, saying he left two fastballs up in hitter's counts.
"If I make better pitches, we're talking about a whole different deal here, I think, and most starts, to be honest," Tillman said. "I've got to make better pitches. Get ahead. I fell behind both those guys in my last inning, so stay ahead and make my pitches. … [It was] much better. I wish I would have finished up a little better."
Of his five strikeouts on the day, only one came on a four-seam fastball, and that sixth-inning swinging strikeout of Yan Gomes on a fastball up in the zone represented Tillman's best fastball in terms of velocity at 91.9 mph. Tillman's four-seamer averaged 89 mph. All three Indians homers came on fastballs in the 86-88 mph range. He had just one swinging strike from the 41 four-seam and two-seam fastballs he threw in his 83-pitch outing.
Orioles designated hitter Pedro Álvarez didn't exactly transform himself in the minors, but believes he's become a more disciplined version of himself on his forced baseball exodus in Norfolk last year.
The three homers off Tillman all qualified as barreled hits, and each came off the bat at exit velocities of 104 mph or higher. Alonso's sixth-inning homer off Tillman, which came on an 87.9 mph fastball, was squared at an exit velocity of 112.3 mph and had a hit probability of 100 percent.
On the other side, Clevinger (2-0) struck out three, walked two and retired the last 14 batters he faced as he lowered his ERA to 1.75.
Asked how big of a step Saturday was for Tillman, Showalter noted it was a step forward, which was the most important thing. The manager also said had the Orioles done more against Clevinger, it might have been more significant.
"Chris has had a long period of success and a period not like he's capable of, or has done in the past," Showalter said. "So, you're looking for anything. I'd like to say it's a process. There will be another challenge around the corner. But I thought he presented himself better than he has his other outings. He was very close one time. It got away from him, but I thought his curveball was better.
"He'd like to have back a couple pitches. He's trying to go two-seam a little off the plate and jerks it back toward the middle. ... It's hard to really be negative about it. I don't want to be because offensively and their pitching, which is so good — we win that game, 5-4, it's a whole different look. I don't want to get into looking at his outing because it's 4-0."