SARASOTA, Fla. - On the day that the Orioles traded for pitcher Chris Tillman, the thought never crossed his mind that he would start for them in an opener. He didn’t ponder the idea of being anointed as the staff ace.
“I had no idea,” he said today. “My first thought when it happened was, ‘Crap, I’ve got to get to learn everyone again and start from ground zero.’ I just got comfortable there and had to start all over again.”
Six years later, Tillman has been confirmed as the opening day starter against the Red Sox on March 31 at Camden Yards.
“Anytime you get the chance to get that kind of opportunity, it’s a big deal,” he said. “No. 1, it’s an honor, it’s exciting. At the same time, it’s important for the team to get us started in the right direction, the season going the right way. I think we’re all just excited to get this thing going.”
Tillman, 25, is breaking camp with the team for the second time in his career. He pitched the second game of the 2011 season, but still hadn’t established himself as a major league starter. He didn’t surface in 2012 until a July 4 outing in Seattle.
Tillman, the youngest Orioles starter to pitch on opening day since Mike Mussina in 1994, still hasn’t spent a full season in the majors. He came off the disabled list last season to start the fifth game.
What was his reaction today when told inside manager Buck Showater’s office?
“He said, ‘Thanks,’ ” Showalter said. “But he’s one of those guys who walks out of here and, trust me, he gets it. One thing I got is his face got a little different color.
“I’d love to ask him, ‘Did you think it was going to be?’ He’s very unassuming. He doesn’t assume anything.
“I don’t think anybody who got to know Chris and see him evolve as a young man, I don’t think that part of it was surprising. For instance, Andy MacPhail a long time ago when he made the deal. People thought this might be where he’d land, and you see it physically and you see the way he carries himself. This is part of the evolution and why people in player development project players. That’s why certain things in the game are a science and certain things down here are viewed as an art.
“There are things about Chris you can’t put on paper. Running down the hall trying to hide from me so I don’t take him out of the game. Where do you put that on a pie chart? Anyway, I’m proud of him. He deserves it.”
Tillman, who’s 25-10 over the past two seasons, described his meeting with Showalter as “real quick.”
“It was 10 seconds,” he said. “He told me. He knows how I work. I’m a big routine guy. He just wanted to get me in there and let me know. Now, it’s been set up to throw that day.”
Asked whether he got the assignment as a reward for last season or because he’s deemed the staff ace, Tillman replied, “I think it’s a little bit of both.
“It’s definitely a big honor and you’ve got to earn it, but at the same time, we’ve got five guys here who are all capable of doing it,” he said. “I think that’s what’s special to me. I was the guy that was chosen, the one they want to go out there and run with it, get this thing going in the right direction.”
Said Showalter: “It’s a reward. What he did last year puts himself ... We want him to be out there as much as he can.
“He’s a competitive guy. You see a different look on his face on game day. He’s been around some good people. He’s figured out who he is. He’s comfortable in his own skin, and I think he likes people counting on him.”
Tillman must reflect on how far he’s come, from posting ERAs of 5.40, 5.87 and 5.52 from 2009-11 to being the opening day starter in 2014. He’s also the fifth different Orioles pitcher to get the assignment in the last five years, joining Jason Hammel, Jake Arrieta, Jeremy Guthrie and Kevin Millwood.
“I do sometimes,” he said. “More so in the offseason when I have time to think about it. It’s kind of cool to sit back and be able to dwell on what happened during the season. Not now, because it’s business first. This last offseason, I had time to think about it. It was a cool thing.”
There’s also an element of pressure.
“All the hype of opening day, yeah,” he said. “Whether you’re sitting in the dugout or pitching, it’s the same thing. There’s pressure for everyone. I’ve been in the dugout and I’ve been more nervous watching than being a part of it. It’s just a matter of getting the team going in the right direction. I think it’s important.
“To me, we’ve got five guys that can do it. It’s not one guy. We’ve got five guys who are capable of doing it and I’m not the only one who thinks that. We all know that on any given night, the guy who’s out there has a chance to do something special. I look at it more as I’m the guy out of five guys, as opposed to one or two.
“It’s special, but at the same time, we’ve got to take it by the horns and run with it. It’s an important game.”
Ubaldo Jimenez, signed to a four-year, $50 million contract, was a consideration for the assignment, but he got a late start in camp.
“I’m hoping in the future it gets harder and harder to pick the one,” Showalter said. “I understand the way it was perceived out there. I don’t dwell on it near that much. What it boils down is it gives that person an opportunity to make one more start, really, when you get down to it.”
Notes: Alexi Casilla will play in one of Tuesday’s games against the Orioles’ minor leaguers. He was supposed to start at shortstop in Clearwater.
Nolan Reimold also may give up his off day and take some at-bats.
Outfielder David Lough is shut down for the next 48 hours because of neck stiffness.
“That’s no activity,” Showalter said. “Trying to clear that all up.”