Aberdeen, MD. - Pitching in a game for the first time in nearly six weeks, Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman allowed three runs in two innings pitching tonight for short-season Single-A Aberdeen against the Tri-City ValleyCats, a Houston Astros affiliate.
To say the least, the game did not start well for the right-hander, who walked the leadoff batter on five pitches and gave up a ground single to right to 2018 first-round draft pick Seth Beer. With No. 3 hitter Emmanual Valdez batting, a passed ball was charged to Aberdeen catcher Alfredo Gonzalez to provide Tri-City a 1-0 lead. Valdez walked, a wild pitch advanced runners to second and third and then a groundout made it a 2-0 lead. No. 5 hitter Gilberto Celestino hit an RBI double to right-center for a 3-0 Tri-City lead. Tillman got a dribbler in front of the plate for a second out and a called third strike to end his long opening inning.
In the first he gave up two hits, three runs, two walks, issued two wild pitches and threw 35 pitches, 21 for strikes. His fastball touched 90 mph once or twice but mostly sat in the 87 to 89 mph range.
Tillman completely reversed course in the second inning when he retired the side quickly on eight pitches, throwing seven strikes. He got groundouts from the two batters at the bottom of the order, and then a flyout to right on the first pitch from leadoff batter Jeremy Pena.
So the final line was two innings, two hits, three runs, all earned with two walks, one strikeout and two wild pitches. He threw 43 pitches, 28 for strikes.
After his start, Tillman said his next outing is likely to be Monday for Single-A Delmarva at home versus Hagerstown.
Tillman was replaced by the IronBirds’ opening night starter, right-hander Victor Romero, to begin the top of the third. Tillman may have reached his pitch-count limit due to the long opening inning, and Romero took the mound as a light rain began to fall.
Tillman is out to try to prove that he can do a whole lot better than what the Orioles saw last year and earlier this season. But the more he has struggled, the more reason to doubt he can ever return to the level of pitcher who was a stalwart in the Baltimore rotation from 2012 through 2016, the year he went 16-6 with a 3.77 ERA and started the American League Wild-Card game.
Tillman went on the disabled list this year on May 11 with a lower back strain. He had been rehabbing in Sarasota, Fla., leading up to this start and recently pitched in an extended spring training game. Before the DL stint, he went 1-5 with a 10.46 ERA over seven starts. In his last two Orioles starts - on May 3 versus the Angels and May 10 versus the Royals - he gave up 13 runs (12 earned) over 2 1/3 innings. In 31 games since the start of the 2017 season, Tillman is 2-12 with an 8.42 ERA.
Tillman was a free agent over the winter and re-signed with the Orioles in February, getting a $3 million guarantee and a deal that included another $7 million in bonuses and incentives.
Tillman has also seen his velocity in decline in recent seasons. According to brooksbaseball.net, he averaged 92.9 mph in 2016, 91.2 mph last year and was at 89.5 mph this season. That was 88.8 mph in his last big league start May 10, when he got just one swing-and-miss on 45 pitches. Tonight his velocity further reflected what was seen in his most recent Orioles starts.
A few Tillman post-start quotes
On two very different innings for him: “First one, timing was a little off. It was good to get back in a game situation, though. Second inning, slowed everything down and timing kind of came around and it got better. After the first couple of hitters in the first, I was pretty happy with the way it went. Not the runs, but the execution ... I think they told me I had 15 pitches left (starting the second) when I went out and threw seven and said, ‘I’ve still got eight more.’ Yeah, I think they are trying to be careful early on, which is smart.”
How far away are you?: “Tonight wasn’t as good as I was seeing down there (in Florida). But later in the first inning and the second inning, it was better. I think the more comfortable I get in game situations, the better it’s going to get. I saw some good things down there and you just have to keep building off it. I don’t think you can try to repeat the same thing every time, but it’s got to get better, and it got better down there and I’d like to carry it over.”
Was it tough being away from the team?: “It’s tough on me. It wasn’t easy being away from them whether we were winning or losing. It doesn’t matter. It’s always tough being away from the team and your friends and the atmosphere I’ve been around for so long. It’s tough, but I know I’ve got to focus on myself, get myself better to where I’m capable of helping the team, like everyone knows I’m capable of doing. I can’t go out there and put the team in jeopardy. I have a lot of work to do still.”
Have the Orioles committed to returning you to the active roster if you show progress?: “I haven’t really talked to anybody, to tell you the truth. I really haven’t. I’ve been dealing with the guys down in Sarasota, and that’s all I’ve really been doing. I really haven’t talked to anyone in Baltimore, other than the players.”