Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

It didn't happen overnight, but Chris Tillman has transformed into Orioles' leader on mound

SARASOTA, FLA. — The easy Southern California countenance can fool you sometimes.

Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman doesn't look or act much different than the 19-year-old kid who showed up for spring training at Fort Lauderdale Stadium fresh off the blockbuster Erik Bedard deal with the Seattle Mariners in 2008, yet just about everybody who watched him win 16 games last season marvels at his dramatic transformation.

He might appear to be the same relaxed, soft-spoken guy who came here along with Adam Jones and three other players to help in the transformation of a chronically unsuccessful Orioles organization, but he has finally shed the weight of everybody else's expectations and replaced them with his own.

It wasn't easy, and it didn't happen overnight.

"To a young guy, expectations are tough," Tillman said. "You want to live up to them. You want to exceed them. You want to blow them out the door. If you don't meet them, personally you feel like you failed — not only you, but other people do, too."

Think about that. Think about what it would be like to be that young and think that your whole life is hanging in the balance and you feel like — year after year — you're letting everybody down.

Now, think about the emotional strength and confidence that can grow out of conquering that internalized frustration and insecurity.

Tillman came here as a can't-miss prospect and reached the major leagues at the very tender age of 21, but he struggled through a half-season in 2009 and then failed to stick in each of the next two seasons.

It wasn't until the baseball world was coming to the conclusion that he could actually miss that he broke through with nine wins and a sub-3.00 ERA in 2012, and then emerged as the Orioles' top starter last year.

Somewhere along the line, there was an epiphany. Tillman said he just got tired of being the poster boy for youthful inconsistency, and went back to the proverbial drawing board.

"I got to the point two years ago, going into the offseason where I said, 'You know what, something needs to change.' Something needed to change, because I wasn't getting it done. That's when we got Brady [Anderson] and started working with that. Then, Rick Adair and Rick Peterson and Mike Griffin put together the program I'd work on. They knew it. I knew it. I knew what needed to happen, and if it didn't happen, I probably wouldn't be here."

It's an interesting phenomenon that certainly isn't unique to Tillman's career. The original expectations that accompanied him out of high school would end up creating the perception that he was as underachiever, though he arrived as an effective major league starting pitcher at just 24 years of age.

The fact that he has overcome that to be viewed at 25 as the staff ace — and even a team leader — should make him doubly valuable to the Orioles organization, because the club now has several prospects who may have to travel the same road.

The Orioles are looking forward to the quick development of Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Eduardo Rodriguez as the key to becoming a perennial contender in the American League East. Each of them are facing the kind of expectations that nearly undid Tillman, and he figures to be around to help them maintain perspective.

Tillman is not really a veteran, but Gausman pointed out that age, particularly in baseball, is a relative thing.

"He's kind of in between, but I definitely look up to him" Gausman said. "He established that he's our ace going into the year. Watching him pitch last year was, obviously, something special."

Bundy, who arrived to tremendous fanfare two years ago and is nearing his return from Tommy John elbow reconstruction, was assigned the locker right next to Tillman in the spring clubhouse, which probably isn't a coincidence.

"He's still a young guy, too, but he's done well," Bundy said, "and I can take some things he's done and work from that."

That doesn't mean the next generation of top Orioles pitching prospects will be able to avoid all the pitfalls that come with their inflated advance billing.

"You think about it, how big of a role media plays in this sport and in everyday life now," said reliever Tommy Hunter. "It definitely takes a toll on you … It's just about sticking with yourself, and being who you are, and continuing to grow. It's so hard to do that in a failing man's sport.

"You fail a lot in this sport, so those are the things a lot of people remember, and that you remember. Chris got better, man, so he finally put that to the side and kind of grew up and said, 'Look, I'm going to do this my way,' and he did."

Manager Buck Showalter never misses an opportunity to applaud Tillman for the way he arrived in camp and quickly assumed a leadership role with the young pitchers and newcomers during the first few days of workouts.

He stopped short of addressing whether the club's winningest pitcher of 2013 will be the Opening Day starter on March 31, but he clearly thinks that last year was no fluke.

"This is what you hope that they graduate to," Showalter said. "I think the biggest thing, he's going to be somebody his teammates want to please. That's as much of a compliment that I can give somebody."

Catcher Matt Wieters knows Tillman as well as anyone by virtue of their complementary roles on the field. He also knows a little something about trying to live up to magnified expectations, and thinks that there is a lot the younger players on this team can learn from the way Tillman persevered.

"The best thing about Chris' story is that you've got to draw from your own experience, and no matter what anybody is saying or writing about you," Wieters said. "Everybody's time schedule is different, and you've just got to be able to stay within yourself and work as hard as you can work, and it'll all work out from there.

"When you start trying to compare yourself to other people, that's when you get in trouble."



Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad