SARASOTA, Fla. — With the Orioles' wanting to start top pitching prospect Zach Britton in the minor leagues because of his contract situation and Brad Bergesen nursing a forearm injury, the opportunity could not have been clearer for Chris Tillman.
A strong start against a lineup that included five Boston Red Sox regulars might not have guaranteed the 22-year-old a spot in the big league rotation, but it certainly would have been a strong statement. Instead, Tillman's performance again called into question whether he's major league-ready and left the Orioles wondering whether the final spot in their Opening Day rotation will be filled by default.
Other than Britton, who has given up one run in 14 Grapefruit League innings, nobody has stepped up to seize it.
"You've been watching. That's something for you to say, not necessarily me," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I think they showed some signs of what everybody thinks they could be and some signs in spring training that we need to get better at."
Tillman had a couple of good sequences in the Orioles' 4-3 comeback victory over the Boston Red Sox at Ed Smith Stadium. However, there were far too many reminders of the problems he has had over has past two seasons, in which he has compiled a 5.61 ERA over 23 big league starts.
In 52/3 innings Sunday, he allowed three earned runs on six hits, four walks and a hit batsman while striking out three. The two-run homer he gave up to J.D. Drew in the third was wind-aided, but it was hard to say he deserved a better fate after throwing 103 pitches, only 60 for strikes.
He had two outs and nobody on in the first four innings but allowed each of them to be prolonged, either by a hit or a walk. In the fourth, he allowed a two-out single to No. 8 hitter Paul Hoover and an RBI triple to Drew Sutton. Neither player is in contention to make the Red Sox's Opening Day roster.
"I was talking with [pitching coach Mark Connor] and [catcher Matt Wieters], talking about how seven, eight out of 10 pitches, I felt good, and the other two or three, I was going back to my old self and kind of got away from myself a little bit," Tillman said. "I had a lot of deep counts today, and that can't happen. But other than that, I thought it went OK."
Tillman revealed that he has been using a new delivery over his past two starts. When Showalter was asked about it after the game, he said: "Do you see anything drastically different? In every camp in baseball, every pitcher is doing some things they tweak and kind of settle in. In the first four innings, he had two outs and nobody on, which was good, but he couldn't close the inning. … We have certain aspirations of what he could be one day. It's part of the process. He's the second-youngest player in camp next to [Rule 5 selection Adrian Rosario, recently returned to the Milwaukee Brewers]."
Tillman has a 3.93 ERA over five Grapefruit League outings, but his other numbers are what concern team officials. In 181/3 innings, he has surrendered 20 hits, issued nine walks and hit two batters. Still, Tillman says he feels that the mechanical changes he has made, coupled with his improved strength after an offseason of regular workouts, make him a far better pitcher than he was at this time last year.
"With the changes I've made, I'm more consistent, my pitches are better, more crisp," he said. "Later in the game today, that was probably the worst stuff I've had all spring, and to still be able to get guys out, I think that's a positive."
Asked whether he felt that he has pitched well enough to make his first Opening Day roster, Tillman said: "I can't answer that. They've told me the things to work on, and I felt like I've worked on them and they said they're happy with the way it's going and I've got to keep working. The 2 or 3 percent, I feel like I'm trying to go back to my old self. I've got to fight myself and battle myself to make the changes."
Tillman's fate depends largely on Bergesen's health. The 25-year-old right-hander was drilled in the right forearm by a liner off the bat of Minnesota Twins leadoff man Denard Span on Friday. While saying his forearm is still a little tender, Bergesen threw off flat ground Sunday and could graduate to the mound Monday. The Orioles would like him to return to game action Tuesday, which would keep him in line to start Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays in the third game of the regular season.
Showalter announced last week that the team will stay with four starters until at least April 10. Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Matusz will start the first two games, and Jake Arrieta has been slotted to start the home opener against the Detroit Tigers on April 4 in Baltimore. Bergesen would be a favorite for that final spot.