This is what every Orioles fan had hoped for, what everyone had optimistically envisioned when Chris Tillman, former No. 1 starter of the Orioles, re-signed in February on a one-year, $3 million, make-good contract after a disastrous and injury-marred 2017.
That suddenly Tillman would transport back to, say, the middle of 2016 and command the baseball, attack the hitters, mix eye levels and walk away with a win.
No one wants Tillman to fail. He’s too good of a guy, too hard of a worker, too important a piece of this organization to want to discard him. But he hadn’t shown he could consistently get big league hitters out in some time. And that’s the bottom line in the majors.
Well, it happened Friday night in a 6-0 Orioles victory against the Detroit Tigers, the team that most likely would have signed Tillman this spring had he not returned to Camden Yards.
Tillman on Friday was the Tillman you want to remember — without the low-to-mid-90s fastball, anyway. He allowed only one hit, walked two, plunked a batter and fanned five in seven shutout innings.
He wasn’t really dominant; he was really confident.
Confident in his mechanics, confident in his game plan with catcher Caleb Joseph, confident in his offspeed pitches.
“My secondary stuff was better,” Tillman said. “We were able to mix pitches just enough to keep them off-balance.”
The Tigers were completely off-balance, generating a lot of weak grounders or harmless fly balls.
With one out in the first, Tillman hit a batter on the foot and then walked the next one. There may have been a “here we go again” vibe lingering around Camden Yards and on the television screens in the Mid-Atlantic region. But not lingering around Tillman.
He struck out Nick Castellanos and then induced a fly ball to end the inning. It triggered a run of 10 straight batters retired.
“He didn’t let things snowball,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “He said, ‘OK, that happened.’ I thought the first inning, getting out of that inning … if he gets one more inning under his belt, he’s going to have a really good outing.”
Tillman surrendered his lone hit in the fifth, a one-out double by Jose Iglesias, who moved to third on a groundout.
The Orioles and Tillman were clinging to a 1-0 lead, the tying runner was 90 feet away and the hot-hitting Leonys Martin was up. Again, Tillman attacked with confidence.
He threw a first-pitch strike, and Martin then worked the count to 2-2, all off-speed pitches.
The next offering was vintage Tillman. He climbed the ladder with a high fastball. It was 88 mph, not 93 or 94 like Tillman routinely threw a couple years ago.
But it changed Martin’s eye level. He committed, and then tried to pull back. The third base umpire said Martin didn’t check his swing. Strike three; 1-0 lead preserved.
“Yup, high fastball to expand the zone. A guy that has been swinging the bat real well. He’s been hot for them,” Showalter said. “I thought that was key to his outing, kept his pitch count down.”
Two more innings and some offense provided — including two Pedro Alvarez homers — and Tillman was headed for his first win since his initial outing of 2017. He went 22 starts without a victory before Friday. He also helped snap the Orioles’ five-game losing streak.
The even-keeled Tillman acknowledged that walking off the field with a lead and a chance to win was uplifting.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Who knows if this is a blip — one pleasant moment — for Tillman or if it is the start of something strong and sustainable?
He won’t let himself bite on that conjecture.
“No. Definitely not. I think every start is a challenge, The next team (couldn’t) care less what the heck I did tonight,” he said. “ 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.”
It’s one start. Tillman realizes that. We all should.
But that one start also provided a glimmer that the Tillman that struggled through 2017 with a shoulder injury and mechanics that never felt comfortable, the one that stumbled out of the gate in 2018, could be in retreat as this season progresses.
That’s the hope. That Tillman the fighter has moved himself off the ropes and is now landing his own punches again.
“You want Chris (to experience) something positive, because we all know what it could mean to us if Chris could get going like Chris is capable,” Showalter said. “ It could make what I think is going to be a good rotation into a really good one.”
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