But after that, Tillman — who was officially recalled from the minors before the 8-3 loss to the New York Yankees and sent back to Triple-A after it — had trouble locating his pitches, a common theme in his brief but erratic big-league career.
“Fastball was there the first two innings, and then it got away from me,” said Tillman, who hadn’t started in the big leagues since May 27. “I went to my off-speed stuff later on, and every time I fell behind a hitter, I got hurt.”
The Orioles (42-61) dropped their seventh game in eight tries against the Yankees (62-42) this season heading into Saturday’s doubleheader nightcap.
The 23-year-old Tillman, who was demoted when Zach Britton was promoted from Double-A to start the second game, was dominant early. He retired the first six batters he faced, including four on consecutive strikeouts.
He touched 94 mph with his fastball — a significant uptick from the 89 he averaged in his first 10 starts this year — and threw 17 of his first 24 pitches for strikes.
“It's the first time in a while I've seen him go out from pitch one carrying an aggressive, above-average fastball,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “When he can do that, he can pitch with his fastball [in the majors].”
A Brett Gardner two-run single that sneaked past drawn-in third baseman Mark Reynolds gave the Yankees a two-run lead in the third. But things began to really fall apart for Tillman in the fourth inning, when he needed 35 pitches — the same number he had tossed in the first three innings combined.
The Orioles scored two runs on groundouts by J.J. Hardy and Craig Tatum to tie the score, before Tillman immediately returned the lead in a three-run fourth. He issued a leadoff walk to Robinson Cano, and Nick Swisher followed with a two-run homer to right on a 93-mph, belt-high fastball.
“They weren’t hitting his fastball. It’s just, we got in counts where they could sit fastball. We made the mistake and they made us pay,” said Tatum, the reserve catcher. “I just thought the first two innings we were ahead of everybody, and the second time it was 2-0, 2-1, 3-1 and that’s just what gave [Tillman] trouble, because his stuff didn’t change. His fastball didn’t change. It was the best fastball he’s had since I caught him [in July, 2010] against Texas.”
The Yankees tacked on a fifth run on an RBI single by No. 9 hitter Francisco Cervelli, who also doubled against Tillman. He now has allowed seven hits in 20 at-bats (.350 average) against ninth-place hitters in his 11 starts in the big leagues this year.
“The 7-8-9 hitters of the New York Yankees are a little bit different than Triple-A hitters. There are good hitters up here, especially with some of the deep lineups you face,” Showalter said. “If you look at some of their hitters and where they'd be hitting in different orders, I think it's more of a mentality of not thinking, ‘Because the number next to the name of where they're hitting in the order, they're less of a threat.’”
Tillman lasted into the fifth, when Mark Teixeira reached base on a Blake Davis throwing error and Cano struck out before Swisher doubled to center to chase Tillman.
Lefty Troy Patton entered and allowed Tillman’s inherited runner to score on a groundout, and then he surrendered an RBI single before settling down. Patton allowed one run in 2 2/3 innings.
But the game was well out of control by the fifth. Tillman (2-4) was charged with seven runs (five earned) in 4 1/3 innings pitched. It was the fourth straight big-league start, and sixth of his past seven in the majors, that he hasn’t gotten beyond five innings. He did, however, record a season-high six strikeouts.
“It's always frustrating. A loss is a loss,” Tillman said. “Losing is frustrating. It's been a long two months. Like I said, it's a work in process. It can all change overnight. Keep working at it.”
Yankees starter Bartolo Colon wasn’t particularly efficient, but he was effective enough. He lasted just five innings, allowing five hits on two walks while striking out six. Colon (8-6) was forced to throw 105 pitches in five innings.
The husky right-hander was replaced by Cory Wade, who allowed one run in three innings, a homer to Mark Reynolds in the eighth.
It was Reynolds’ team-high 23rd homer of the season and his second in two games.
It was a fitting ending, considering the Orioles left 10 runners on base in a game that started so promisingly but ended so abruptly for Tillman.
“It’s more than a two-innings deal if you're trying to start up here, especially against that lineup,” Showalter said. “It was encouraging, his approach, and his presentation was a lot better, but it wasn't quite good enough. There was a better outing to be had today.”