No one needed to tell Chris Tillman how important Wednesday’s start was for him and the Orioles.
Coming off arguably the worst outing of his career, a 3 2/3-inning disaster in Kansas City in which he allowed eight runs and 10 hits in a 9-1 loss, the 23-year-old realizes his days in the starting rotation might be numbered with the return of Brian Matusz — and possibly Alfredo Simon — right around the corner. A 7.16 earned run average entering his start against the Mariners screamed anything but security.
The bullpen was shorthanded after seven innings of work in Tuesday’s 13-inning victory, and Tillman’s propensity for short outings forced the Orioles to skip Brad Bergesen’s side session Wednesday and keep the starter on call to pitch in emergency relief. Win or lose, the right-hander needed to get deep into the game.
To add another interesting wrinkle, Tillman was facing the team that drafted him in the second round of the 2006 amateur draft and later traded him to the Orioles in the Erik Bedard trade in February 2008.
And, oh yeah, he happened to be facing the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez, who would be facing a Baltimore lineup without Nick Markakis — a career .464 hitter against the dominant right-hander — who was suffering from a stomach bug.
The matchup was as lopsided on paper as you’ll find at the major league level, an almost guaranteed victory for the Mariners.
But instead of taking it on the chin, Tillman pitched six innings and allowed just one run to lead the Orioles to an improbable 4-2 victory over King Felix and Seattle. Relying more on his changeup than he had in his first previous six starts, Tillman allowed three hits, walked three, and struck out five to record his second win of the season.
“It felt good,” said Tillman about beating his former team. “First of all, it was good seeing those guys again, the few that are left. But I think that gave me a little extra boost. Kind of wanted to stick it up their butts a little bit.”
He received plenty of help from Adam Jones, the other marquee player sent to Baltimore in the famed Bedard trade, whose two-run triple in the fifth inning gave the Orioles a 4-1 lead. The center fielder matched a career-high with four hits, raising his average to .286 and giving him the team lead in runs batted in (21).
With uncharacteristic run support, Tillman did the job against a woeful Seattle offense hitting just .232 entering the night. It wasn’t a perfect performance and questions remain about his diminished velocity (the fastball rarely climbed above 89 miles per hour), but his six strong innings were exactly what manager Buck Showalter needed with Jason Berken and Clay Rapada being the only relievers not to have pitched in Tuesday night’s marathon.
“He had a pretty long leash tonight,” Showalter said. “I don’t think he realized just how long it was going to be, especially in the second and third inning. One of those rare times when it’s tough to protect a young pitcher tonight.”
Facing one of the best pitchers in baseball, the Orioles forced Hernandez to pitch into deep counts, forcing his exit after only five innings and scoring three runs in the fifth to take the lead for good. It was enough offense to secure the Orioles’ second straight win and set up an opportunity for a sweep on Thursday night with Zach Britton taking the hill against Jason Vargas.
Kevin Gregg pitched a perfect ninth to earn his seventh save of the season.
Despite the offensive production against Hernandez and solid relief, the story of the night was Tillman, besting the Seattle ace and giving the Orioles an improbable win. It was quite the contrast from his deflating outing against the Royals, at least in the numbers department.
“There wasn’t a whole lot that was different,” Tillman said. “I just made my pitches. Last time, I think I made good pitches early on and then when it came down to making that one pitch, I left it up and they put good wood on it. I think [Matt] Wieters kept me right on line tonight and didn’t let me get away from myself.”