Chris Tillman looking like the staff ace Orioles have long coveted

August 10, 2013|Peter Schmuck

It has become a matter of seeming universal agreement that the Orioles have one glaring weakness that will eventually be their undoing — either at crunch time in September or early in the postseason.

They lack that one go-to starting pitcher at the head of the rotation who can tip the balance in a one-game playoff or a best-of-whatever series. They don't have a Justin Verlander or a CC Sabathia or a Clayton Kershaw to strike real fear into a quality opponent.

That's the rumor, and it certainly has a ring of truth after all the years the O's tried to pass off Jeremy Guthrie as the staff ace and hoped against hope that one of their bright young prospects would finally morph into the next Jim Palmer.

Well, maybe it's time to give Andy MacPhail one more round of applause for getting the Seattle Mariners to part with Chris Tillman five years ago, because that raw 19-year-old has grown into a pretty formidable pitcher.

In the 13 months since he rejoined the rotation last July, he has quietly emerged as one of the winningest pitchers in all of baseball, with the kind of eye-popping won-loss numbers that put him among the best in the business over that period. He's made 38 starts and has a 23-6 record. The Orioles have won 28 of those 38 games. It doesn't get much better than that.

The only pitcher with more major league victories since Tillman was called up is Detroit's Max Scherzer, who is an amazing 17-1 right now and had nine victories in the second half of the 2012 season.

This isn't breaking news, of course. Tillman was always considered a great talent and he was known at the time to be one of the big chips — along with Adam Jones — in the deal that sent Erik Bedard to the Mariners. It's just that the learning curve took awhile to start pointing in the right direction. Now, the only question is how high it might go.

If you stayed up Friday night to watch the Orioles open a three-game series against the San Francisco Giants, you got a pretty good idea.

Tillman delivered one of the best performances of his career, pitching eight innings and allowing just a run on four hits. He didn't get his 15th victory of the season because closer Jim Johnson could not hold a one-run lead in the ninth inning, but the Orioles scored three times in the 10th to win their third straight game on the West Coast.

Does that make him the true No. 1 starter that the O's have so desperately needed for so long? Is he the legitimate ace that can bookend the best-of-five Division Series if the Orioles are fortunate enough to get that far for the second year in a row?

It's probably a little too early to put that on him, but there is no question that he's maturing nicely and — as Palmer pointed out during the MASN broadcast — still appears to have a lot of upside.

There is plenty of room for improvement. Tillman still has pitch-efficiency issues that have — too often — made him a six-inning pitcher, though he went deep Friday night and probably could have started the ninth if the game had not been so tight. He showed terrific fastball command on the way to a career-high nine strikeouts, but needs to be more consistent with his breaking pitches.

None of the past six Cy Young Award winners can match his winning percentage or the Orioles' winning percentage in his starts since he carved out a permanent place in the rotation last year, but his 3.42 ERA over that span is better only than struggling knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and injured Roy Halladay.

Perhaps the gaudy won-loss record can be explained away in part because Tillman has gotten strong run support from the explosive Orioles lineup this year. The O's have averaged more than 5 ½ runs in his 23 starts and he did register his 14th victory in his first start this month even though he surrendered six earned runs and barely stuck around long enough to qualify for the decision.

Run support tends to even out over a long season, as evidenced by Tillman's no-decision Friday night. The good ones take advantage of it when it's there and battle to keep their teams in position to win when it's not.

Tillman has proven he's one of the good ones, and — at just 25 — he's still got time to be great.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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