CHICAGO - The Orioles are a season-high 20 games over .500 and 8 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees in the American League East following tonight’s 5-1 victory over the White Sox before a sparse crowd at U.S. Cellular Field.
This is the Orioles’ largest division lead since Sept. 7, 1997.
They’ve got to sense that something special is nearing, that October baseball looms.
“This time of year you have to, especially if you’re playing good baseball,” said Chris Tillman. “We’re playing a good brand of baseball right now. Guys are showing up to the field ready to play. It’s fun. It’s been a lot of fun, especially the turnaround the pitching staff has had. We’re all pretty excited about it.”
What’s the importance of being 20 games over .500?
“We’re one closer to getting through 38 and being in the playoffs. That’s what it means,” said manager Buck Showalter. “But you just keep playing the games. They inch along this time of the year and you don’t spend a lot of time watching other scoreboards. You spend the time watching your own scoreboard.”
Tillman turned in his 12th quality start in his last 14 outings since going one inning in Texas back on June 4. He held the White Sox to one run over eight innings, on Jose Abreu’s homer in the first, and improved to 10-5 with a 3.55 ERA.
“I thought he was starting to get just a little bit feathery toward the eighth, but he’s got some pitches in his repertoire that can get him through there,” Showalter said. “He was carrying a solid fastball early in the game. You see him come out with that type of velocity early on and it usually bodes well. And then he doesn’t have to figure out a way to trick them.
“I was talking to him last night because he said his last outing he said he didn’t hurt but he just didn’t feel good about himself, but he got through it. He was talking to (Kevin) Gausman about it tonight. I thought it looked like he felt a lot better. He had command. He’d like to have the changeup back, but we shouldn’t feel like Abreu is picking on us.
Tillman has allowed three earned runs or fewer in his last 14 starts.
“If you look at the track record, he’s kind of, as the season’s gone on, he really gets into a good routine,” Showalter said. “You’ve just got to stay the course with him because he’s developed a track record at a young age. I let him pitch the eighth inning because he has the potential to get an extra day next time out if we want to do that. So we’ll see.
“Chris is a guy who has a lot of common baseball sense. He gets the competition. He doesn’t give in and he takes his fifth day very seriously. He’s turned into a professional pitcher and it’s been fun to watch.”
Tillman has walked only two batters in his last four starts.
“It certainly helps you win baseball games because major league hitters don’t need any extra free passes. You’ve got to make them earn everything,” Showalter said.
“They played well defensively again. It was fun to watch. (Nick) Hundley was solid behind the plate. Boy, he and Chris, the tempo of the game I thought had a lot to do with them being on the same page.”
The rotation has posted a 2.74 ERA in the last 16 road games. The staff ERA is 2.89 since June 30.
“They’ve been solid, they’ve been the reason we’ve been able to stay consistent with some ups and downs offensively,” Showalter said. “Effort, pitching and defense. If you can stay consistent in that, you can be a consistent team.”
Here’s more from Tillman:
On his outing: “My stuff was better. I was able to execute early in the count and then work my other stuff from there. If I execute and make my pitches, we’ll be all right.”
On string of quality starts: “I think this time of year, it’s a big deal. Every pitcher it is, to get to where we want to be, we’re going to have keep doing that. We know that as a pitching staff. It’s fun. Bud (Norris) set the table perfectly for this game. I’ve just got to go out and execute. That’s what it’s all about.”
On whether rotation was motivated by club’s pursuit of a starter at non-waiver deadline: “For me, personally, I don’t think about it. It might bother some other guys. We’ve got a good group of guys. I don’t think really bothered anybody too much. Any time you can improve the team, we’ll take it. At the same time, it showed they trust us.”
On his lack of walks recently: “Any time you get through a start with a minimum number of walks, it’s a big plus, I think. That’s the biggest pain in a starter’s butt is walking guys. I take a lot of pride in not doing it. You know what, you’re going to have your days where you walk them, but at the same time it comes back to execution.”
On the effectiveness of the starting rotation: “It’s a blast. It’s fun to come to the field every day and look forward to it. It really is. We got together on bullpen days, going out and talking and seeing what we’re doing. We all know what everyone’s working on in the bullpen, so when it comes to game time, we have a good idea of what they’re doing.”
Hundley hit his third home run tonight and stayed in sync with Tillman.
“He was outstanding,” Hundley said. “He was ahead in a lot of counts, he got on the mound and got after it. I thought his focus was really, really sharp and it translated. We kind of put them on the defensive and that’s a very, very good offensive club. They score a lot of runs. The way he attacked them was pretty aggressive.”
What about the rotation as a whole?
“You can’t say enough about them,” he said. “Our offense gets more publicity, but there’s no way we’d be in this spot if we didn’t get quality start after quality start from all five, six of our guys. So, it’s been really impressive since I’ve been here. I’ve been really impressed with the quality and depth of the rotation.”
Hundley is trying to resist looking too far ahead.
“We’ve go to try to sweep the Chicago White Sox. That’s our goal right now,” he said. “Obviously, we put ourselves in a good position and have given ourselves a chance to do some special things, but that’s way too far ahead.
“It’s awesome to come to the park every day expecting to win, expecting to be successful, expecting to be a playoff team to give yourself a chance to do something special. It’s a totally different feeling instead of counting down the days until your off-season starts. I’m very fortunate to be in this position. I’m very fortunate to play with this talent of a team, this quality of a team.”
Hundley loves that his teammates are such a loose bunch.
“It’s great,” he said. “You play so much that you better be loose. If you come in here tight every day, there’s a grind and the mental battle of the season is going to eat you up. I think we’ve got a very, very good group of veteran guys who set the tone and some really talented young guys who follow their lead.
“I’ve been impressed with the leadership here. You see guys like Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz and J.J. Hardy from afar and you know the talent they have, but to see how hard they play the game and how they expect their teammates to play. It doesn’t get much more professional than (Nick) Markakis and those guys.
“When you have a group of guys that have been around as long as they have and they play the game as hard as they do, it lends itself to some serious success.”