BALTIMORE — Just a few years ago, not many would have believed Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman would be the one taking the ball for the opening game of a playoff series.
Acquired with outfielder Adam Jones as the centerpieces of the Erik Bedard trade in February 2008, Tillman carried a career 5.58 ERA in 36 starts over his first three major league seasons in which he shuffled back and forth between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk. The struggles left him as an afterthought in many minds as the Orioles embarked on what turned out to be a surprising 2012 season that resulted in their first postseason appearance in 15 years.
It wasn’t until that July that Tillman finally got another chance in the rotation and established himself as a major league starter by going 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA in 15 starts. Even with Tillman having such an impressive second half, manager Buck Showalter elected to send him to the bullpen in the 2012 playoffs where he did not pitch.
Last year, he established himself as the staff ace and was named to his first All-Star Game. And after being named the Opening Day starter for the first time earlier this year, Tillman will take another step in his dramatic progression by making his postseason debut against the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series Thursday night.
“It has been a journey, to say the least,” Tillman said. “I had a couple of rough years early on and kind of turned things around come 2012. I think that goes to show where the organization is at, not just personally, but all the way throughout. … For myself, like I’ve always said, it’s a big puzzle, and you’re trying to find the pieces to it and put the puzzle together.”
Completing his second consecutive 200-inning season and posting a 20-start streak of allowing three or fewer earned runs that wasn’t snapped until his final outing of the regular season, Tillman’s final 2014 numbers that included a 13-6 record with a 3.34 ERA weren’t such a sure thing as late as early June. Slow starts in the early innings and poor fastball command led to Tillman holding a 5.20 ERA through his first 13 starts.
His early-inning pains and a lingering groin issue led many to wonder if a market correction was finally taking place after his superb 1 1/2 years, but the 26-year-old instead made adjustments and went on the most successful run of his career, posting a 2.38 ERA over his final 21 starts to not only silence doubters but make it an elementary choice for Showalter to choose him as the Game 1 starter against the Tigers.
“He’s just a really hard worker. I know his talent is really immense,” catcher Nick Hundley said. “I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for how good he is. It’s a tough game. You don’t roll out here and put up Nintendo numbers like he has the last three or four months without being really good.”
Tillman will be opposed by 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, leading many to overlook the tall right-hander once again, but his numbers since early June suggest he is as dangerous as any starting pitcher remaining in the postseason. The only question will be how he responds to the limelight of his first playoff appearance, but Tillman is often praised by teammates and coaches alike for his even demeanor, which should allow him to handle what’s sure to be a raucous crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
For the California native, it’s just another step and just another start, even while anticipating some butterflies.
“The only difference is the stakes are higher. I take every game the same way,” Tillman said. “They’re all important. There is not one that’s less important than the other. Once the game starts and the bell rings, that’s where we’re comfortable as a team. Might have extra feelings before the game, be nervous, but if you’re not nervous, you need to find another job.”
Hot corner, hot topic
When asked about how he anticipated handling the third base position, Showalter wasn’t tipping his hand Wednesday as the Orioles have given starts to Ryan Flaherty, Jimmy Paredes, Kelly Johnson, and Alexi Casilla at the hot corner since Chris Davis was suspended for amphetamine use on Sept. 12.
The growing pains have been clear as the Orioles had appeared to settle on Davis as their regular replacement for the injured Gold Glove winner Manny Machado before the slugger was banned for 25 games, a stretch that makes him ineligible until the ninth game of the postseason should the club advance. Baltimore made seven errors at third base over the final 10 games of the regular season.
“I feel confident in the people that will be playing and they’ve got a good track record,” Showalter said. “I don’t think anybody is trying to be as good as Manny. [He] had a historical year defensively, but we’ve been able to present ourselves well over there. I feel confident that we will continue to do that.”
Most believe Showalter will go with the strongest available defensive option in the postseason, which would be Flaherty despite the utility infielder committing three errors over his final four starts at third.
The 2012 Rule 5 pick said he is feeling more comfortable after getting extensive time at third base for the first time since the beginning of the year when he was filling in for the still-rehabbing Machado. Flaherty has made five errors in 27 starts and 255 1/3 total innings at third base this season.
“Part of my job here was to be able to be flexible and move around,” Flaherty said. “Getting over there the last couple weeks with Manny being gone, with Chris being gone [has helped]. You feel a little more comfortable the more you’re there.”
Rotation, roster remain secret
Showalter said Wednesday that he won’t announce the rest of his starting rotation until the conclusion of Game 1, but Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris will be the three starters behind Chris Tillman — in some order.
The 23-year-old Kevin Gausman was told to be ready for Game 1, a surefire sign that he will pitch in relief during the Division Series. However, it remains to be seen how many will be joining him in the bullpen as the Orioles are debating whether to go with a six-man group of relievers and a six-man bench or seven relief pitchers and five on the bench. A six-man bullpen would include Gausman, closer Zach Britton, right-handers Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter, lefty Andrew Miller, and either righty-hander Brad Brach or left-hander Brian Matusz.
“The decision for us is going with 10 or 11 [pitchers], and we’ve kicked it around until we’re blue in the face like everybody does,” Showalter said. “If you knew exactly what was going to be needed for each game, it would be real easy to do.”
The deadline to finalize the Division Series roster is 10 a.m. Thursday.
“Cheerleader” Machado progressing well
Machado was back at Camden Yards to watch Games 1 and 2 of the Division Series before reporting to Sarasota to continue rehabbing his surgically-repaired knee.
The 22-year-old remains optimistic that he’ll be 100 percent for the start of spring training in February.
“I’m doing everything,” said Machado, who is embracing the role of cheering for teammates despite not being able to play. “Activating the muscles and trying to get my quads back. I’m basically full-go [in a] couple weeks, hopefully. I have full range of motion already, and hopefully in a couple weeks, I’ll start riding the bike and get that going.”
Mr. Oriole pays visit
Hall of Fame third baseman and Orioles legend Brooks Robinson was a special guest speaker before the 2014 Orioles completed their workout at Camden Yards on Wednesday.
“His message was that he’s excited to see how excited Baltimore is,” Tillman said. “To us, that’s special. He’s been there. He’s been there for the World Series, for the playoffs, and he said this is the most fans he’s ever seen walking around the streets wearing their Baltimore Orioles jerseys and are proud of it.”