The evolution of Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman continued Friday night with an outing that was reminiscent of an experienced veteran and not a guy who was in the minors a year ago wondering about his future in the organization.
He won without having particularly strong command, walking four to tie his season high set in the first game of the year. He won despite getting little run support. He won against a good opponent by again making in-game adjustments – something that he didn’t do effectively in the past but seemingly has mastered now.
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“I hope so. I hope that’s all in the rearview mirror,” said Tillman, who is 7-2 with a 3.61 ERA after throwing six-plus shutout innings Friday. “We work hard in the offseason, in spring training and the early part of the season to get that out of the way. I hope I’m able to make adjustments like I did, every game, every start. … It’s something you definitely learn.”
The 25-year-old Tillman, as he has much of this year, pitched Friday like a guy who belongs and not one who is hoping to fit in.
“I said in spring, Chris came in full well aware that he was out of options, but he pitched like a guy that had three (minor league options) and didn’t want to go to Norfolk,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “That showed a lot of maturity because he wanted to be a guy for us this year and he has been so far.”
At times in the past few seasons, Tillman seemed like the forgotten man, getting passed over by the other members of the so-called “cavalry” of young arms. But as those pitchers have struggled to maintain consistency, Tillman has emerged as the most reliable starter. Currently, he is the only one – Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta are in the bullpen; Zach Britton is at Triple-A and Brad Bergesen is in Japan -- in the Orioles’ rotation.
What he has done, and the company he is in, since being called up from the minors last July is eye-opening.
Since July 4 last year, Tillman is 16-5 and his 16 wins is third in the American League behind Detroit’s Max Scherzer (18) and Justin Verlander (17). His .762 winning percentage ranks him fourth in the majors since the beginning of 2012.
“I think there were times last year where he really showed signs of greatness and showed signs of how dominant he could be,” first baseman Chris Davis said of Tillman. “And this year he’s had some games where he’s really gone out and just kind of made you step back and take a deep breath because he is throwing the ball so well. That’s a pretty solid lineup he shut out tonight and he did it pretty handily.”
Tillman allowed just three hits, and didn’t give up an extra base hit until his last batter, Jose Iglesias, doubled to lead off the seventh. It was just the second time in 14 starts this season that Tillman didn’t allow a run and it was his fourth straight win.
It allowed the Orioles (39-29) to reach 10 games over .500 for the first time this season while moving within 1 ½ games of the American League East leading Red Sox (41-28).
The Orioles have now beaten Boston four of five times this season and in 13 of their last 17 meetings. It was their fourth shutout of the season and first since Freddy Garcia dominated the Washington Nationals on May 30.
“That team gets excited for us. I watched almost all of the at-bats from their last few series and they didn't pitch that way,” said Boston slugger David Ortiz. “Tillman leads the league in home runs and he didn't give us anything. He was throwing me backdoor breaking balls and change-ups in hitters' counts and hitting the spot. Their bullpen, the same thing. They execute against us."
Tillman gets much of the credit Friday, delivering huge pitches when needed. Twice he struck out the final batter of an inning by challenging them with 94-mph fastballs. He retired his final eight batters before Iglesias’ double.
As Tillman walked off the mound in the seventh, the majority of the announced crowd of 39,158 rose to its feet for a standing ovation.
The bullpen, though, was outstanding for the second straight night. In 9 1/3 innings against Boston on this homestand, Orioles relievers have not allowed a hit, a walk or a run.
“We’ve got a strong bullpen,” said Tommy Hunter, who pitched a perfect eighth. “That’s been one of our strong suits last year and hopefully we are continuing that over. We’re trying to do a good job right now. Things are going our way.”Darren O’Day stranded Iglesias by retiring all three batters he faced in the seventh. Hunter served as the bridge to closer Jim Johnson, who picked up his 24th save with a scoreless ninth that included a game-ending double play.
Because of the strong pitching performance, the Orioles offense, which had scored 27 runs in its past five games, didn’t need to do much.
Davis got the Orioles started with a homer to lead off the second inning. He crushed a 90-mph fastball from Ryan Dempster to the opposite field in left for his major league leading 22nd of the season and second homer in three games.
The Orioles added their second and final run in the third on a two-out RBI single by Adam Jones. It was his 46th RBI of the season, and it wasn’t one of his sharpest. Jones hit a dribbler off the end of his bat to third base, but beat the throw to first while McLouth scored from third.
Nate McLouth made it to third on a single by Manny Machado, who had three hits including two more doubles. The 20-year-old third baseman now leads the majors with 30 doubles; the most for a player under age 22 through 68 games in baseball history, edging out Hall of Famers’ Ted Williams (25 in 1939).
“You’re talking about Ted Williams, one of the best players that played the game,” Machado said. “To be mentioned in that category, it’s a great honor.”
Dempster (4-7) made his first Camden Yards start Friday in his 16th season, most of which have been played in the National League. He had previously faced the Orioles three other times in his career, posting a 1-0 record and a 1.47 ERA – his lowest mark against any team he had pitched against at least three times.
He wasn’t dominating on Friday, but was solid – throwing 122 pitches and lasting 7 2/3 innings. He yielded two runs on five hits and five walks while striking out four.
Dempster battled like the 36-year-old veteran he is.
But he lost to Tillman, who is really starting to pitch like a confident veteran.
“You can say that,” Showalter said. “You saw the type of effort they got from Dempster tonight. (Tillman) just didn't give in. I'll let you say it.”