O's benefiting from Tillman's dedication to success
Strong work ethic has led righty from struggling prospect to All-Star on contender
BALTIMORE -- When Orioles starter Chris Tillman got to Sarasota, Fla., in February, there wasn't a magic number of starts he wanted to make or an ERA he wanted to be under. Health permitting, the 24-year-old -- who was out of Minor League options -- just wanted to be a pitcher who didn't have teammates groaning when he took the mound.
"I remember a couple years ago, when he would get guys on base, it was like, 'Oh God, he's about to take 20 minutes,'" center fielder Adam Jones said of Tillman, who went 7-15 with a 5.58 ERA in 36 starts over his first three years in the big leagues.
"I wouldn't ever say [he was] scared. I would say [he was] more timid. That's gone. It doesn't matter who's in the box anymore. That mindset is the reason why he's doing what he's doing."
What Tillman is doing is quietly making a name for himself and keeping the O's playoff hopes afloat.
Ask teammates if the young right-hander -- who at 16 wins has equaled his career total in the previous four seasons combined -- can be considered the staff ace, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't agree. While Baltimore has been inconsistent in the second half, Tillman has been a rock, pitching to a 3.33 ERA in 11 games, including a seven-inning, sweep-avoiding gem at Fenway Park last month that many point to as a potential season-saving performance.
"We had one win against the Yankees [in a recent four-game set], and it was his start," rotation mate Miguel Gonzalez said of Tillman, who is the first Orioles pitcher since 1999 to reach the 16-win mark.
"He's been our guy. He's not scared to throw that fastball in any count. And that's what it's all about. "
How did Tillman, who had so many ups and downs from Baltimore to Triple-A Norfolk that he joked he knew the entire airplane flight crew, go from a potentially failed prospect to a late addition to this year's American League All-Star team?
Tillman began working with former pitching coach Rick Adair -- who has taken a leave of absence -- in 2011 on mechanical fixes, starting with his posture. The problem was he didn't have the strength to hold a good position, with his final outing that year a 2 2/3-inning August debacle in which he allowed six earned runs. And as the O's put together an impressive final stretch, Tillman was bypassed for a September callup.
That last demotion, Tillman would reflect later, hit him harder than the rest. If he was going to be a successful Major Leaguer, something had to change. So Tillman spent subsequent winters working out with special assistant Brady Anderson, and adding size and strength to his lanky frame as well as a few mph to his fastball.
The overhaul continued last spring, when the Orioles' biomechanical analysis results on each pitcher coincided with what Adair had seen. Tillman went to Triple-A to start the 2012 season, working closely with Norfolk's pitching coach, Mike Griffin, on doing drills that added movement and generated more power. When he was summoned for his first big league start that season in July, Tillman turned in one of the most dominant efforts of the year, going 8 1/3 innings and not allowing an earned run.
"Success always you can draw from, learn from. But the thing with Tillman is he's learned from the failures he's had the last couple years," said catcher Matt Wieters. "What people don't realize is he was learning at the big league level how to pitch and develop his mechanics. And I feel like right now he has a good grasp on that and is going out there and trusting his stuff."
Tillman went 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA in a half-season's worth of starts in '12, and he showed up to Sarasota this spring ready to win his teammates' trust for good.
"There's a time where you go, 'OK he's on the side of the process where he should bite, if he's going to bite -- if he's a big dog,'" manager Buck Showalter said. "Some guys take the process and go through it all and don't get any better. Tilly, he's very driven.
"He came to camp like he had three options. He wasn't necessarily saying, 'It's my time', but, 'It's time for me to be a guy who can be counted on.'"
It's scary to think of where the O's would be without Tillman, whose season has been overshadowed in some regard due to the historical year by Chris Davis and the eye-popping performances of Jones and Manny Machado, to name a few, on a club that is on pace to go down as the best defensive team ever.
"If he maintains what he's doing right now with that confidence, he won't be going anywhere," Jones said. "I think he'd be a good fit to be our No. 1 going into next year."
None of this matters to Tillman now as the right-hander remains focused on helping the Orioles down the stretch. Gone are the days when Tillman had his head down and mumbled muffled sounds into reporters' recorders. These days, Tillman isn't timid on the mound or in a room full of the media. It's as if he looks at it as another challenge, part of the duty that comes with being "that guy" for Baltimore.
And he wears it well. Take Tillman's first career complete game on Saturday, an effort in which he publicly chastised himself for a pair of mistakes in the O's loss. And then there was a rare clunker in Cleveland on Sept. 3, the only time in eight starts he has failed to complete six innings.
"I need to be better than that," said Tillman, who allowed four runs over 5 1/3 innings. "It's coming down to the wire here, and I think I expect better from myself."
Tillman, who will start Thursday's series finale in Boston, is closing in on the 200-inning mark at a staff-leading 187 1/3. It is a far cry from the days of two- and three-inning starts and perhaps the start of Baltimore having a legitimate frontline pitcher.
"I think he's a guy who the sky's the limit on," Showalter said. "You trust him, you trust what he's going to do in the offseason to get ready for next spring. You know when he shows up next spring he knows where the finish line is, and he's got people who get him and trust him. He's got a chance to have a lot of fun in this game. We are lucky to have him."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.