Tillman shuts down Mariners in season debut

Tillman shuts down Mariners in season debut

Tillman shuts down Mariners in season debut
SEATTLE -- After patiently waiting and stringing together a nice stretch at Triple-A Norfolk, Chris Tillman -- who was thisclose to joining Baltimore's rotation several times already this season -- made one thing clear with Wednesday's impressive start: it's Tillman time.

The 24-year-old seized the opportunity to establish himself as part of the Orioles' struggling staff, which has had trouble finding consistency beyond Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen, surrendering just two unearned runs over 8 1/3 innings for the best outing of his career.

"[Catcher Matt Wieters] got to the changeup a little bit later on in the game to give him a different wrinkle," manager Buck Showalter said of Tillman, who highlighted his club's 4-2 series-clinching win over the Mariners at Safeco Field.

"We kind of got to the point [in the rotation] where we needed a little fresh gunpowder, and Tilly provided it."

Tillman, who has been on a shuttle back and forth to the Minor Leagues over the past three seasons, held Seattle -- an organization that made him its second-round selection in the 2006 Draft -- to just two hits as a surprising Orioles squad continues to show resilience. Baltimore, which guaranteed a winning first-half record on Tuesday -- for just the second time since 1998 -- has now won 16 series, already equaling its total from the 2011 season.

"The men in here knew we needed this series," center fielder Adam Jones said of an Orioles club that is fighting to stay in the American League East race, with Wednesday's win putting it 1 1/2 games up on Tampa Bay for second place, trailing the New York Yankees by five.

"We're just trying to win series, to win ballgames," Jones said. "I think if we take two out of every three, we should be in the thick of it when it's all said and done."

On Wednesday, all the talk in the Orioles' clubhouse revolved around Tillman, and rightfully so. Crediting an improved delivery and showcasing more confidence than he's shown in previous years, the right-hander used a steady diet of fastballs -- consistently in the 95-97 mph range -- to stymie Seattle's bats and cruise the entire afternoon.

The Mariners first hit off Tillman didn't come until the fourth inning, and even after Michael Saunders' single, Tillman responded by recording a pair of strikeouts to keep Seattle from setting foot on second base until the ninth. He struck out seven -- one shy of a career high and the most in a single start since 2010 -- and allowed just six baserunners on two walks and two errors.

Was this the best start of his career?

"Results-wise, yes," said Tillman, who entered the game with a career 5.58 ERA in 36 starts and was still hitting 97 mph on the radar gun on his 120th pitch. "The way I felt, my command was OK. And I think we can definitely move forward from here and keep working on it."

Wieters -- who wanted to catch Tillman despite the day game after a night game -- was far more willing to heap on the praise, saying it was "for sure" the best performance Tillman has had in parts of four seasons in the big leagues.

"I saw a little bit of it when I caught him in Double-A, that kind of life [on the fastball], that kind of breaking ball, being able to mix in the changeup," Wieters said. "The big thing today was that he did have that changeup to go to when he wanted. He had three pitches that were working whenever he wanted them."

"It was fun to watch him today," added Jones. "He got ahead with strikes, and that's a big, big point. You do that, you get ahead of hitters 0-1, I think you can utilize your pitches. He utilized his changeup and his curveball really well."

Jones, who came to Baltimore in the same trade as Tillman, got the Orioles on the board with a second-inning solo homer. Jones' blast gave him a second consecutive season with 20, his 20th last season not coming until Aug. 6.

The bottom two batters in the lineup, Mark Reynolds and Robert Andino, combined for four hits, three runs scored and an RBI as the O's plated four runs off Mariners starter Hector Noesi, who exited after five innings. It marked the first multihit game for Reynolds since June 14 and the first for Andino -- Tuesday's hero with a game-winning homer -- since June 5.

But the afternoon belonged to Tillman, who ensured the Orioles' ninth road series win with a dominant 125-pitch outing to shatter his previous career high of 112. Erasing any quibbles over high-pitch counts at Triple-A, Tillman needed just 76 offerings to get through the first six frames and put on a show for the holiday crowd of 21,982.

"I've been in the comfort zone for about a month-and-a-half now," said Tillman, who was optioned after the game to Double-A Bowie, where he will make a start Monday before pitching the big league team's third game after the All-Star break.

"I faced him last year and I've never seen him sit at 93-95 mph," said Saunders, who played with Tillman in the Mariners organization. "He was throwing straight, he was mixing up his pitches, throwing a pretty good curveball, 12-to-6. He did a good job of not leaving too much over the plate, but I think that was the biggest difference for me. Seeing him last year and seeing him a few years back, he's definitely added a few miles an hour on his velocity."

Tillman exited after John Jaso's one-out double put runners on second and third, with Saunders reaching on a fielding error from Robert Andino. Closer Jim Johnson was summoned to get the final two outs of the ninth, allowing a pair of inherited runners from Tillman to score before getting Miguel Olivo to fly out to end the game.

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.