Chris Tillman’s early exit Friday night at Fenway Park left the Orioles looking for answers. Manager Buck Showalter knows how hard Tillman works in between starts, catcher Caleb Joseph thought Tillman’s arsenal of pitches was crisp and Tillman himself said he felt healthy and thought his delivery mechanics had improved over his previous start.
So what gives? Tillman — the anchor of of the Orioles rotation from 2013 to 2016 — isn’t right, and he hasn’t been since a nagging shoulder landed him on the disabled list late in the 2016 season.
In Friday night’s series opener against the Red Sox, Tillman suffered his shortest outing of this young season in the Orioles’ 7-3 loss to American League East-leading Boston, unable to get an out in the third inning three batters in. And for the most part, he looked completely out of whack.
As a result, the Red Sox improved to 11-2 while the Orioles lost for the third time in four games to slip to 5-9.
Despite his success pitching in an Orioles uniform and the team’s faith that Tillman had shaken last year’s struggles when they signed him in February, the right-hander understands his rotation spot could be in jeopardy, knowing he has to find a way to get better results.
“I’ve got to get better, period,” Tillman said. “I’m not happy with the way it’s going and I just have to get better. It’s not fair to the team. It’s not fair to the bullpen. I need to pick these guys up pretty shortly, and it’s got to happen now. I want to pitch better. I have to.”
When the Orioles signed Tillman, 29, to a one-year, $3 million deal during spring training, they did so because they believed the right-hander had put last season’s struggles in the past. The team didn’t consummate an agreement until arriving at a figure it would be comfortable buying out if Tillman struggled extensively out of the gate.
On Friday, Tillman allowed 10 of the 16 batters he faced to reach base, giving up six runs on seven hits, two walks and a hit batter. Perhaps worse than that pitching line was Tillman’s pitch chart, which displayed an incredible lack of command. He fell behind in the count to nine of 16 batters and struggled working from behind.
“I’ve seen all the work that he and [pitching coach] Roger [McDowell] and [bullpen coach] Alan [Mills] and everybody all season do,” Showalter said. “When you get to a point like that, a guy who’s had success like he’s had, there’s some other answers there. We’ve got to find them, solve them, because we need to him to pitch better than that.
“You keep thinking, ‘If he could get a good start under his belt and then take off,’ because we know what he’s capable of. But physically he feels fine. There’s a lot more going on there than just mechanics.”
Friday’s outing marked Tillman’s shortest start since Aug. 3, when he also lasted two-plus innings and allowed seven runs (five earned) on six hits and two walks.But Tillman’s ERA is now 11.91 three starts into the season. He hasn’t won a decision since May 7 last season, going a franchise-record 21 straight starts without a win. He has allowed 22 hits and 10 walks over 11 1/3 innings this season for a 2.82 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched).
“I felt like my last start was worse mechanically than this one,” Tillman said. “It comes down to execution. When you miss with the first one, you’ve got to try to get back into the count and you fight an uphill battle at that point, especially against a team like this. You’ve got to stay ahead and work with the count in your favor.”
Since 2016, his fastball velocity has steadily declined — his four-seamer averaged 89.6 mph Friday — which isn’t a major concern if he can execute his other pitches, which Tillman has been unable to do this season.
He pitched mainly with his fastball Friday, never finding his feel for the pitch, and leading to some sharply hit balls by the Red Sox. Of the 13 pitches Boston batters put in play, four of them were hit with exit velocities of at least 104 mph. In 57 pitches, Tillman induced just two swinging strikes.
“I know the results aren’t there,” Joseph said. “You’re looking for that one ground ball, first and third with one out to turn a double play, and get you out of the inning and get some momentum going his way. A lot of it’s confidence. A lot of the game is confidence. Hitting defense, pitching. When you pitch with confidence, it seems like good things happen and so you’ve got to find a way to get Chris some confidence. It’s not as bad as it seems out there, I guess. It doesn’t make sense. The stuff is there. Limit the mistakes, get ahead of guys and try and find some luck here and there.”
Tillman has had success against the Red Sox in his career, entering the night 10-4 with a 3.03 ERA in 21 career starts against them. He was also 5-1 with a 2.39 ERA in nine career starts at Fenway Park
The most damaging hit off Tillman wasn’t a good one – Eduardo Núñez’s three-run homer over the Green Monster to put the Red Sox up 4-1 in the first inning had a hit percentage of just 49 percent. It came after Tillman issued a leadoff walk to Mookie Betts, a one-out single to Mitch Moreland, a sacrifice fly to J.D. Martinez and a double to Rafael Devers.
Núñez’s at-bat offered a good microcosm of how Tillman struggled. His first pitch was a curveball that sailed high way out of the strike zone, followed by a 1-0 slider that was fouled off and a four-seamer that caught the heart of the plate and was sent over the high wall in left field.
Back-to-back doubles by No. 9 hitter Tzu-Wei Lin and Betts extended the Orioles’ deficit to 5-1 in the second. After opening the third inning allowing consecutive hits to Devers and Núñez and then hitting Jackie Bradley Jr. with a pitch, Tillman was pulled by Showalter.
He left the game with the bases loaded and reliever Pedro Araujo’s first pitch got past catcher Caleb Joseph for a passed ball to score the sixth run charged to Tillman.
Mike Wright Jr. allowed the Red Sox’s final run in the sixth. The Orioles scored in the first on Adam Jones’ sacrifice fly and in the seventh on Manny Machado’s two-run double.
“It’s not good,” Tillman said. “Physically I felt good. Mechanically, I felt better. I just wasn’t able to execute. I think it comes down to executing pitches. I feel like I consistently fell behind. Once you fall behind, you’re trying to get back in the count and you’re catching too much of the plate when you’re working back into counts. … You come back, work between starts and come back and get the next one. … But obviously we’ve got some work to do and we have to get better.”
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