BALTIMORE — Five home runs and a sparkling defensive play by Adam Jones understandably drew the attention in the Orioles’ 9-1 win over Tampa Bay to snap a three-game losing streak Monday, but it’s been one of those seasons for starting pitcher Chris Tillman.
Improving his record to 11-5 and improving his streak of consecutive starts allowing three or fewer earned runs to 15, Tillman hasn’t received the same accolades he did a year ago when he was named to his first All-Star team. The 26-year-old doesn’t light up a box score with gaudy strikeout numbers, but his results have been consistent throughout the summer for the first-place Orioles.
“It comes back to being confident in my delivery,” said Tillman, who allowed one unearned run and three hits in seven innings against the Rays. “When you trust your delivery, you are not afraid to throw any pitch in any count.”
It was less than three months ago when Tillman’s mechanics were failing him as his early-inning woes knocked him out of games, making many wonder whether his impressive 16-win season from a year ago was more aberration than breakthrough. Following a disastrous one-inning start against Texas on June 5 — the second time in four outings in which he’d been chased before recording an out in the second inning — Tillman’s ERA had ballooned to 5.20, a mark higher than even that of the maligned Ubaldo Jimenez.
Whether it was finally getting over a nagging groin issue or simply working on repeating his delivery with pitching coach Dave Wallace, Tillman has been a different pitcher ever since while posting a 2.15 ERA in his last 100 2/3 innings spanning 15 starts. Only twice over the last 15 starts has Tillman failed to complete at least six innings, and the Orioles have gone 10-5 when Tillman has taken the hill over that stretch.
On Monday, Tillman lowered his season ERA to 3.41 and improved to 2-0 with a 1.71 ERA in three starts spanning 21 innings against the Rays in 2014.
“One of the keys is you see him carry a crisp fastball early in the game,” manager Buck Showalter said. “He’s had that for a while now — knock on wood. That’s usually an indicator. And the curveball is of use to him. He can get it in there.”
After so much discussion about Oakland acquiring Jon Lester and Detroit trading for David Price while the Orioles did not add a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, Tillman’s 2.15 ERA over his last 15 starts — close to a half season — stacks up favorably to Price (2.08 in 117 innings) and Lester (1.89 in 104 2/3 innings) over their last 15 outings split between their former and current clubs.
Tillman’s inconsistent start to the season forced him to play catchup for much of the summer, but there should be no debating who would take the ball for Showalter in Game 1 of a playoff series. That wasn’t the case three months ago when some clamored for Tillman to be placed on the disabled list or even to be sent to the bullpen to straighten out his woes.
Of course, the tall right-hander hasn’t been alone as the Baltimore pitching staff has sometimes carried an uneven offense that entered Monday ranking last in the American League in batting average (.231) and on-base percentage (.284) since the All-Star break while still leading the majors in home runs. But Tillman has been at the head of the class in a rotation that may not scare you in the same way that Oakland’s or Detroit’s does, but it’s a group that continues to produce results just like Tillman did Monday night.
“Every fifth day, all our pitchers have been good,” shortstop J.J. Hardy said. “But every fifth day when he takes the mound, we feel like we have a great chance to win.”