Orioles' Chris Tillman on DL stint: 'I think it is a blessing in disguise'

The usual nameplates are still on the lockers inside the Orioles clubhouse at their spring training facility, but the atmosphere is much different than when the team was finishing camp two months ago.

At that time, right-hander Chris Tillman was looking forward to a rebound season, to proving doubters wrong. But since then, Tillman’s performance has only produced more questions. They include the mysterious way he was placed on the disabled list two weeks ago with a lower back strain after back-to-back horrendous starts.


Now, Tillman is back in Sarasota — and Thursday morning inside the empty clubhouse, he offered some clarity on his injured back and his focus moving forward.

Throughout his on-field struggles, which date to the final weeks of the 2016 season, Tillman has repeatedly said he’s healthy, always distancing himself from using any discomfort as an excuse.

Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman was placed on the disabled list with a lower back strain Friday, ending a disastrous run for him in the rotation.

But a day after Tillman had his best performance this season on April 27, when he threw seven scoreless innings of one-hit ball against the Detroit Tigers, he said he hurt his back dodging a foul ball that was lined into the Orioles dugout.

“It almost killed me,” Tillman said. “It was [Tigers right fielder Nick] Castellanos. [Orioles right-hander Andrew] Cashner was pitching, backup slider, he hit a missile into our dugout. I didn’t see it until [it was 5 feet away]. It could have been much worse. … I jumped out of the way and it completely locked up.”

Tillman tried to pitch through it, making two starts in which he failed to get out of the second inning, before he said he decided to go on the DL.

“I’m not going to use it as an excuse,” Tillman said. “[The discomfort] was there. I was good enough to pitch. I don’t think it was really on my mind when I was pitching by any means. But you know, it’s good to get away from it, get it better and get back to feeling good and get back sooner than later rather than have it nag and keep on having to worry about it.

“I was able to fight through it for a couple [starts], but it just wasn’t getting any better. It kind of started hitting a plateau and it started bothering me more and more, and now I feel like I made the right decision because it feels a lot better now.”

Tillman said the discomfort in his back is now gone, and on Thursday he threw his third catch session this week. His hope is once he gets his strength back and resumes throwing off a mound, he can speed up the progress. Tillman is scheduled to throw off a flat mound Sunday, with the possibility of moving to a full mound Tuesday or Wednesday, but the timetable for his return is unclear.


In the meantime, Tillman will use this time as a sort of sabbatical, trying to figure out how he can reverse his regression. Over a five-year span from 2012 to 2016, Tillman was the Orioles’ most dependable starting pitcher. But since the beginning of the 2017 season – right after shoulder problems started – no pitcher with more than six starts owns a higher ERA than Tillman’s 8.42.

“I think I’d be really stupid not to look at it that way,” Tillman said. “I mean, no one ever wants to get hurt, but if it is going to happen, you might as well take the time to iron some things out and get back to doing what you’re capable of doing, not just going out there and trying to compete but being good again.”

Tillman said he hopes this is where he can recapture the fluidity in his delivery, which he believes is the root of his struggles. He’s never been one to dot his fastball with consistency, but his command has been a problem. Since the beginning of 2017, he’s averaging 5.1 walks per nine innings, a significant spike over his career average of 3.4.

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“I think so,” Tillman said when asked whether his mechanics are the problem. “I actually believe it. You pull up video from ’12 to ’16 and you look at ’17, it’s different. I can see it, but I can’t feel it. I’ve started to feel it the past couple days playing catch and being able to get away from it and not having to worry about certain things. I think it is a blessing in disguise.

“If I could pinpoint it right away, I would be able to tell you I’d be back tomorrow pitching how I used to. But that’s now how this works. We’re not golfers. We can’t go out to the range for four hours a day and get it fixed. We’ve got to work at it. It’s going to be a work in progress but I like where it’s heading.”

At the same time, Tillman must find his new normal, how to get hitters out with reduced velocity on his four-seam fastball. In May 2016, his fastball averaged 93.5 mph and this month, it was at 89.3 mph. The result has been using his four-seam fastball less with gradual increased use of his two-seam sinking fastball and a sudden 18 percent increase in throwing his slider.


“It’s frustrating,” Tillman said. “I liked where I was this offseason. You see it sometimes, not really feel it, but you’re getting some results and you kind of get caught in between because a lot of the success I was seeing was with two-seams and sliders and that’s not me. I get caught in between. So I think you’ve got to stay persistent, stay with a goal, come in with a plan and not get away with it.

“I learn by feeling it and then you get the results and then all of a sudden, here we go. And I think that’s a big part of it. First, you have to realize it ain’t right and then you have to fix it and know what you have to fix, understand how it works and how you’re going to get there.”