Battle between Tillman, Britton for Orioles' fifth starter spot friendly

Two young pitchers are rooting for each other, focusing on improving

March 07, 2011|By Peter Schmuck and Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

FORT MYERS, Fla. — By all accounts, the battle for what might be the final slot in the Orioles' starting rotation is a friendly one, especially this early in the exhibition season.

Chris Tillman took his turn Monday afternoon at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers and took a few licks from a pretty good Boston Red Sox lineup, but he was upbeat about his performance and in a rush to get back to Sarasota to see Zach Britton take the mound Monday night in the MASN-televised night game against the New York Yankees at Ed Smith Stadium.

The right-hander arrived in time to see Britton, the Orioles' top pitching prospect, throw three scoreless innings in front of a sellout crowd at Ed Smith Stadium.

"I think that goes with the friendly competition," Tillman said after giving up three runs on four hits in the first inning of the Orioles' 6-5 loss to the Red Sox. "I want them to do good, and I want to do better. It helps everybody. It's going to help Britt, too."

Britton got all the help he needed from the national anthem singer, who botched the lyrics and then started over, putting a smile on the face of the young left-hander. Britton acknowledged after his first spring outing against the Philadelphia Phillies that he was so nervous, he had no idea what going on.

"I was excited to be out there, but I really wasn't nervous," Britton said Monday. "I was talking to the guys, and they were like, 'Hey, just go after the guys.' They were no different than the Phillies were. I have a lot of respect for what those guys have done on the field, but in between the lines, I was like: 'I don't care who you are, I'm going to go after you today. If you beat me, you beat me.'"

Britton allowed two hits, walked one and struck out one. He started the game by retiring Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira on a total of 13 pitches, all on ground balls.

Tillman, 22, said he "felt great" in the rocky first inning and was getting used to mechanical adjustments he has been working on with pitching coach Mark Connor. The Red Sox hit the ball solidly, but Tillman insisted that there were only two pitches in the inning that he would take back.

"The two pitches to J.D. Drew [two-run single] and Kevin Youkilis, they're really the only ones that got away," Tillman said.

The competition is just starting to heat up, and it could get complicated. Tillman would appear to have the inside track because of his previous major league experience and the likely reluctance of the front office to start Britton's service time on Opening Day, but manager Buck Showalter said Monday that they both are candidates to start the season in the major leagues.

Through two starts, Tillman has allowed four earned runs, seven hits, one walk and struck out four in five innings. Britton, 23, has pitched five scoreless innings, allowing five hits, no walks and striking out two.

"It's a real competition," Showalter said, indicating that Britton's starting the season at Triple-A Norfolk is not a formality.

If there was anything to be read into the fact that Britton was assigned the televised home game against the Yankees, Showalter said that it had nothing to do with any change in the pecking order in the rotation. Quite the contrary.

"If anything, this [City of Palms Park] is a lot harder place to pitch," Showalter said early Monday. "Have you seen their lineup?"

Indeed, the Red Sox started a very representative lineup against Tillman, and the pitching plans were laid out under the assumption that the Yankees would not send a lot of their "A" players to Sarasota. It turned out, however, that the Yankees sent Alex Rodriguez, Jeter, Cano and Teixeira on the trip.

"You could have done it the other way around," Showalter said, "but I'm not interested in having their [the Red Sox's] lineup see Britton."

That said, if the Orioles went with Britton as their No. 5 starter, he would likely steer around the first two series against the Yankees and face the Red Sox in the second game of the late-April home series.

There are a lot of variables that could intervene between now and the decision on who will get the final spot in the rotation. If Justin Duchscherer is healthy enough to start, both Tillman and Britton could start out at Triple-A. And a comeback by veteran Ryan Drese, who has given up just one hit over four innings in his first two spring appearances, can't be ruled out.

Tillman doesn't want to think about any of that.

"I go about it by focusing on what I need to do," Tillman said. "When I make my pitches, everything will be fine. I try not to focus on that other stuff."

Several hours later, Britton said something similar: "I came in with the mindset to spring training, after talking to a lot of guys, was don't try to impress them too much. There are certain things that are out of my control. So I came here to try to learn as much as possible. And when I got opportunities like this, it was to try to make the best of them."

Jeff Zrebiec reported from Sarasota, Fla.

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