Orioles' Chris Tillman finding comfort zone as he prepares for Opening Day start

After bouncing between Triple-A Norfolk and major leagues for several seasons, 25-year-old right-hander will face the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards on Monday

(Greg Fiume/Getty Images )
March 30, 2014|By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun

Chris Tillman knows it will be a special moment Monday afternoon when he takes the mound at Camden Yards to officially open another baseball season in Baltimore.

But all of the festivities — running through the outfield on the orange carpet, the sellout crowd and the optimism that accompanies a new season — will all take a back seat once he stares in to catcher Matt Wieters for the first time.

"The baseball field is our home," Tillman said. "That's where we feel comfortable at."

There is a certain cachet that comes with being named Opening Day starter, but you wouldn't know it from listening to him speak.

"I don't look into it as deep as that," Tillman said, sitting back and speaking softly in the Orioles clubhouse in Sarasota, Fla., before the end of spring training. "I look at it that it's the first game, and I'm the first guy up, and it's the first challenge. I really don't look at all the glitz and glamour of it. I look at the competing side of it and what we have to do to win the baseball game."

When the 25-year-old right-hander talks about being named the team's Opening Day starter — he is the fifth different pitcher to have the role in as many years — he quickly deflects the attention away from himself, saying that any of the Orioles' five starters could do the same. And that's one of the reasons why manager Buck Showalter gave him the nod.

"That's why you like him so much," Showalter said. "He's mature in that he realizes it's just one start, but he also realizes the perception of it, the added notoriety of Opening Day. He knows how other people view it, but he also knows how we as a team view it. It's just one of thirty-something [starts this year]. They are all going to be important."

Coming off a breakout 16-win season, the Southern California native has been able to mesh his natural laid-back demeanor with an inner intensity and a desire to be great.

The result has been an ace in the making.

"I don't show my emotions, but I do have to pitch with a fire in my belly," Tillman said. "I know that, if I'm capable of making a pitch, and I completely miss and do something stupid and don't execute, I get mad at myself, but I don't let anyone else know it. I don't let the other team know it. Why should I tell the other team what I did by accident? I want them to think I did it on purpose. To me, I've got to pitch, you could say, pitch in a bad mood. But I don't let too much get to me. If I go out and do my job, I know, win or loss, I gave my team a chance."

That attitude came with time.

When Tillman arrived in the Orioles' organization in 2008 as a major piece, along with center fielder Adam Jones, of the trade that sent left-hander Erik Bedard to the Seattle Mariners, he came with a can't-miss label. And he learned quickly that results don't come so easily.

Tillman made his major league debut in 2009 at age 21, but he spent the next three seasons moving between the Orioles and Triple-A Norfolk, never quite doing enough to stabilize himself as a contributor in the majors. He had an ERA above 5.00 in each of those three seasons. But the punch to the gut that might have changed it all for Tillman came at the end of the 2011 season when he didn't received a September call-up.

"I think I pitched well in the big leagues one time at that point, maybe my first year," Tillman said. "It was disappointing. In September, they told me to go home. That kind of hit home hard, and you could just look at it: It wasn't happening. It wasn't working. Something had to change."

Everyone had an opinion on how Tillman could get better. He said he tried to please all of them, so he constantly made adjustments. But since he spent more time in Triple-A than the majors at that time, he worked a lot with Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin, who saw Tillman's good and bad moments.

"He knew me better than I knew myself at the time because I didn't know what was going on," Tillman said. "He broke it down for me. He said, 'Listen, this isn't you.' We need to get back to what you do best. … We simplified my delivery and made it super easy. … I'm a tall lanky, oaf-ey guy that's not very coordinated, so we had to make it simple."

That offseason, Tillman also began working out with then-Orioles special assistant Brady Anderson in Irvine, Calif. The arrival of director of pitching development Rick Peterson, who broke down pitchers' deliveries with his biomechanical testing program, helped Tillman see how a simpler delivery could give him more power and better control.

Tillman failed to make the team out of spring training to start the 2012 season, but he felt like he was on the verge of a breakthrough, even though he lost seven of his first 10 decisions at Norfolk. Then, in a late-May start, he threw eight shutout innings, giving up one hit against Triple-A Pawtucket, a Boston affiliate.

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