This baseball season didn't exactly begin the way Chris Tillman had hoped.
First, the young pitcher envisioned himself on the opening day roster for Baltimore, where he spent 12 games last year, not in Norfolk.
Then, he lost the Tides' season opener on April 8. In his second start, he gave up three runs on eight hits in 4 2/3 innings in a 6-1 loss, and he lasted all of one inning in his third, giving up four runs on four hits.
"Baseball's a very humbling game," said Tillman, 22, who went 8-6 with a 2.70 ERA in 18 starts for Norfolk last season and was 2-5 with a 5.40 ERA with the Orioles. "Those first two or three outings kind of proved that to me and lit a fire under my butt."
After working eight innings for his first win in the Tides' 5-2 victory against Charlotte on last week, Tillman threw a no-hitter — only the second nine-inning no-no in Norfolk's history, its first since 1992 and the first in the International League since 2006 — in the Tides' 6-0 win at Gwinnett (Ga.) on Wednesday.
The feat earned Tillman a post-game pie in the face and fueled speculation that he'll be called up sooner rather than later to an Orioles team whose 4-18 start is the worst in baseball.
Unlike on Wednesday, though, Tillman has no control there.
"I've just got to focus on what I've got to do here," said Tillman, a second-round pick in 2006 by Seattle who was traded to Norfolk in 2008 as part of the Erik Bedard deal. "That's all I can really handle. I can't worry about what's going on up there."
Tides pitching coach Mike Griffin has little doubt that Tillman will be wearing an Orioles uniform again soon.
"There's absolutely no question that he has a very bright future in the major leagues, a very bright future," Griffin said. "But we don't worry about that down here. We're down here to work on the things that these guys need to work on."
For Tillman, that's better command of his fastball and more consistent control of his curve. His changeup is major-league ready, Griffin said.
"He is a very quick learner," Griffin said. "You can say something to him and he picks it up real quick, and he applies it very quickly also."
On Wednesday night, as the outs piled up — Tillman issued only a walk in the fifth inning, which also saw a fielding error — the teacher may have been more nervous than the pupil.
"Your heart starts to pound a little bit when he goes out for the ninth inning," said Griffin, who lost the best no-hit bid of his 14-year pro career to the first batter of the ninth (as best he can recall) in Omaha, Neb., in 1985.
"Then he gets the first out, and then it really starts to go. I didn't want to move in the dugout at all. I just stayed in my one spot and didn't move."
As the game went on, Griffin and Tillman continued their practice of comparing notes between innings, but Tillman's teammates began studiously avoiding him — his first clue that something was up. Then, in the fifth inning, Tillman turned to see if he'd been charged with an error after a batter beat him to first base.
He was shocked to see he hadn't given up a hit, especially given a warm-up that prompted him to seek out right fielder Jeff Salazar.
"I told him, ‘Good luck today, man. I hope you brought your running shoes,' " Tillman said. "I couldn't really find it in the bullpen."
Tillman's next start comes Tuesday at Harbor Park, where he's 0-2 with opponents hitting .333 against him.
He'll concentrate on improving those numbers — not on how many hits he gives up or on which Baltimore brass may be watching.
"They told me they didn't think I was ready (last season)," he said. "At first I was disappointed, but then right away, it kind of gave me a kick in the butt (and) gave me the drive to get that much better."
Whenever his call-up comes again, Tillman wants his stay to last much longer.
"I think that's everyone's dream - once you get there, to stay there," he said. "It's hard to get there, but it's even harder to stay there."