Chris Tillman's 22-start winless streak lasted 10 days shy of an entire calendar year, so earning his first victory since May 7 felt encouraging for the long-struggling Orioles right-hander.
The way he did it, however, by tossing seven scoreless innings of one-hit ball against the Detroit Tigers in the Orioles' 6-0 win at Camden Yards on Friday night, sparked memories of the old Tillman, the one who was the anchor of the club's rotation from 2013 to 2016.
The win ended the Orioles' five-game losing streak and a stretch of 11 losses in 12 games. They improved to 7-19 on the season.
"It feels good," Tillman said. "It feels good, especially the way we've been playing. We know we are capable of better and it feels good to come out of a game with the lead for once. I feel like every time I'm coming out, we are down three or four runs. It's not fun, it's not fun to be a part of. You've got to pitch better and fortunately tonight I was able to."
Tillman, 30, is not the same pitcher he was. His velocity has diminished. He's battled with his control and his confidence since shoulder problems cropped up during the 2016 season.
And maybe Tillman's outing Friday night was the first step in a successful reinvention of the dependable pitcher he once was.
"Yeah, potentially it is," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "That's a hurdle you've got to get over. But the next team he's going to pitch against couldn't care less. They're not here for all the history and things that we have. But it's still about execution of pitches and he did that today. I thought his presentation was really good.
"We talk a lot. [When] you're around these guys as much as we've been around each other, you kind of know there are some things that regardless of what pure stuff he's featuring, there are some other parts of him that have always been there in every outing. … He had that tonight. I thought he had it for the most part last outing, so regardless if you're throwing 94, 95, that other part cannot not be there. That's a trait he's always brought."
Tillman (1-4) shelved his dependency on his four-seam fastball, leaning more on his off-speed stuff — particularly his changeup — in silencing the Tigers bats. Tillman's changeup made up 21.4 percent of his arsenal Friday, up from a 16.97 percent through his four previous starts.
As a result, Tillman doubled his whiff rate. He induced 10 swinging strikes, including three on his changeup and four on his slider, in his 98-pitch outing. His 9.8 percent whiff rate Friday doubled his season rate of 4.35 percent.
"All of [the secondary stuff] was [working]," Tillman said. "All three of my off-speed pitches were there for me when I needed them. With the fastball the way it is right now, you kind of have to mix and match and Caleb [Joseph] and I sat down before the game and we put together a pretty good game plan and executed."
Even though he tied his season high with five strikeouts, the key to success for Tillman was keeping the ball on the ground. Tillman induced nine groundouts on the night.
"I think it's definitely mechanical with me," Tillman said. "That's the way I've always been — it's a feel thing. Once I feel it, I can take off running. Once we got in rhythm and a good tempo tonight, everything kind of fell into place."
Tillman dodged a scare early, putting two of the first three hitters he faced on base, after hitting Jeimer Candelario with a pitch and walking Miguel Cabrera. But Tillman then struck out Nicholas Castellanos after falling behind 2-1, throwing back-to-back changeups that the outfielder swung through. Tillman then induced an inning-ending flyout from Victor Martinez.
After the walk to Cabrera, Tillman retired 10 straight and 12 of 13 before allowing his first hit of the night on a one-out double by José Iglesias in the fifth. That was the only hit Tillman would allow, and he retired eight straight to end his outing.
"He was outstanding," said designated hitter Pedro Álvarez, who hit two homers — a solo blast in the fifth inning and a two-run shot in the seventh — for his first multihomer game since Aug. 5, 2016. "That's obviously the Chris I've known for a long time. Today, one of the best performances I've seen out of him. So relieving to see. It just helps out, helps our defense, helps our offense, just an amazing job by him today."
Tillman's effectiveness with his secondary stuff allowed his fastball to play better, as was the case in the fifth inning when he stranded Iglesias on third by striking out Leonys Martín swinging on an elevated 88 mph fastball after setting him up with three curveballs and a changeup.
"High fastball to expand the zone," Showalter said. "A guy that has been swinging the bat real well. He's been hot for them. I thought that was key to, 'OK, this has got a chance to be a good outing.' He kept his pitch count down."
Tillman had yet to retire a batter in the seventh through four previous starts, and Friday's outing marked the first time he went seven full innings since Aug. 16, 2016 in Oakland.
Saddled with poor run support before Friday – he received an average of just one run a start coming in – Tillman received an early lead on Manny Machado's solo homer in the bottom of the first, his ninth of the season. Machado also drove in a run in the eighth.
In the sixth, second baseman Jace Peterson — who had two hits and scored a run in his second start in the No. 2 spot in the batting order — hit a ball up the middle that hit off the second base bag and landed in shallow right field to score Caleb Joseph from second. Peterson slid in to second head-first for a double, then for the second straight night stole third with the base unmanned because of a defensive shift.
Asked whether Peterson's ball off the bag was a play that could turn the Orioles' fortunes around, Tillman said, "I sure hope it does. That was good to see for once. That guy plays hard. It's fun to watch him play."
That was more than enough offense for Tillman, who looked at his performance Friday as merely one good outing.
"I think every start is a challenge," Tillman said. "The next team could care less what the heck I did tonight. You've got to keep working, keep grinding and, like I said, it's just a piece of the puzzle. You've got to keep on going."