It’s difficult to look too much into Chris Tillman’s rocky rehabilitation assignment debut Wednesday night at Ripken Stadium.
The Orioles right-hander was making his first truly competitive mound appearance in nearly six weeks — transitioning from pitching on the back fields in Sarasota, Fla., to a minor league game environment — so his opening-inning command problems pitching for Short-A Aberdeen could be expected.
But sooner rather than later, the Orioles will expect to see results — ones much better than the two-inning, three-run performance Tillman gave against short-season hitters at Ripken Stadium — to show their $3 million investment in what was supposed to be the 30-year-old’s bounce-back season can eventually bear fruit.
Tillman — on the disabled list with a mysterious back injury that he said resulted from dodging a foul ball that came into the dugout during a game April 28 — was scheduled to pitch three innings or 50 pitches, but he went just two frames against the Tri-City ValleyCats from Troy, N.Y., in part because of a 35-pitch first inning during which he allowed three runs.
In Tillman’s 43-pitch outing, he showed the same control problems that have hindered him for most of the past two seasons, walking two of the first three batters he faced, and was charged with a pair of wild pitches in the opening frame.
Though unremarkable, Wednesday’s outing was the next step forward for Tillman, who said he’s been given no guarantees he will be added to the Orioles’ active roster once his rehab assignment ends, and he knows his return to the major league pitching staff is a process.
“It’s tough [being away from the team],” Tillman said, “But I know I’ve got to focus on myself, get myself better to where I’m capable of helping the team like everyone knows I’m capable of doing. I can’t go out there and put the team in jeopardy. I have a lot of work to do still.”
Tillman struggled in the first inning this season before landing on the DL, as opponents hit .441 against him in the opening frame, and that continued into his first rehab start, when four of the first five batters he faced reach base on two hits and two walks.
“In a game situation, there are a lot of different things that are going on,” Tillman said. “But for the most part, it was better. The sim games went pretty smooth and other than the first couple of hitters tonight, I was pretty happy the way it went.”
Tillman opened his outing Wednesday with a five-pitch walk, then allowed a single on a softly hit ball to right off the bat of Houston Astros first-round draft pick Seth Beer that put runners at the corners. He walked the next batter, but not before a passed ball allowed a run to score.
He fell behind the next batter 3-0 before working the count full and forcing a 6-3 groundout that scored a run. An ensuing double to right-center drove in a third run against in the first. Tillman’s fastball sat at 87-88 mph, hitting 90, on the Ripken Stadium radar gun.
Tillman settled in in the second inning, needing just eight pitches — seven of them strikes — to retired the side on order on two groundouts and a flyout. Tillman retired the final five batters he faced.
“First one, timing was a little off,” Tillman said of his first inning. “It was good to get back in a game situation, though. Second inning, slowed everything down and timing kind of came around and it got better. After the first couple of hitters in the first, I was pretty happy with the way it went. Not the runs, but the execution.”
Tillman is scheduled to make his next start Monday for Low-A Delmarva, gradually progressing through the minor league system while building his pitch count.
“Tonight wasn’t as good as I was seeing down there [in Sarasota],” Tillman said. “But later in the first inning and the second inning, it was better. I think the more comfortable I get in game situations, the better it’s going to get. I saw some good things down there and you just have to keep building off it. I don’t think you can try to repeat the same thing every time, but it’s got to get better and it got better down there and I’d like to carry it over.”
Asked before Wednesday’s Orioles game in Washington what he wants to see from Tillman in his rehab assignment, Orioles manager Buck Showalter said seeing results will be important.
“Just health, No. 1,” Showalter said. “I know [vice president of baseball operations] Brady [Anderson] saw him at the stadium yesterday. He was working out there. I want to see him get people out and pitch well. Really, that sounds simple, but I think for Chris' sake, he needs to, regardless of what level you're playing at, if you're hoping to return here and regain some form, then you should be able to do well at the levels behind this level. That's pretty simple. I want to see him get people out and have good outings.”
The last time Tillman was in a competitive setting, he was unable to make it out of the second inning in back-to-back starts before landing on the disabled list. Since then, he’s been at the Orioles’ spring training facility in Sarasota, working his way back from the injury while taking advantage of the time out of the spotlight to try to find his old self.
He went onto the DL with a 10.46 ERA in seven starts, which included just one quality start. He allowed less than four innings a start. Tillman had his best start of the season April 27, throwing seven scoreless innings of one-hit ball against the Detroit Tigers, but said his back locked up the following day while dodging a foul ball in the dugout.
He attempted to pitch through the discomfort, but didn’t get out of the second inning in either of his next two starts, putting his rotation spot on ice before he was placed on the DL.
Tillman will have a 30-day window in his rehab assignment to become major league-ready.