Chris Tillman is sniffing around ace status (and other Orioles observations)

April 07, 2014|By Dan Connolly | The Baltimore Sun

There probably have been five times in the past 20 months or so that I've written a game story about Chris Tillman's continued emergence/maturation as a pitcher.

Several times I've written about whether he is – or is at least on his way to becoming – a staff ace. Whenever I've asked scouts or baseball executives about Tillman, though, I'm told he is a No. 2 starter, maybe a No. 3 on a great team.

But then you see what he did Sunday, and you have to wonder, if he can do that consistently, why he can’t earn that ace label.

I mean, what is an ace after all?

A top pitcher who gives your team a legitimate chance to win every time? A guy who routinely faces other teams’ top pitchers and never flinches? A guy who can go into a hostile environment with his club in the middle of a losing streak and stop the bleeding? A guy who can shut down the league’s best offenses?

Well, so far in 2014 -- and, yes, it has only been two starts -- check, check, check and check.

The Orioles have won two games this season -- both started by Tillman. He has had to face the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers and has given up two earned runs in 13 1/3 innings. He’s gone against Jon Lester and Justin Verlander in those two games -- certainly among the upper echelon of American League pitchers.

And, on Sunday, the Orioles were as desperate for a win as a club can be in early April, and Tillman put the club on his shoulders.

Yes, he has to keep doing this for a full season. Two games don’t make an ace. But he doesn’t turn 26 until later this month. And pitching into the ninth and winning in Comerica Park against Verlander to stop a four-game losing streak -- that’s the kind of game required of an ace.

Some other observations from this weekend in Detroit:

** Tommy Hunter has had two save opportunities this season: A one-run save against the Red Sox and a two-run save with a runner on second base against the Tigers. These are big-boy situations, not the three-run lead against the Houston Astros type. And so far Hunter has passed both tests.

Now, this isn’t to say Hunter won’t have his troubles. He’s going to blow some saves. And because he has a tendency to serve up homers when he gets hit, he’s going to have some saves blown in dramatic fashion.

The only question is how he responds once he hits a rough stretch. Will he continue to be aggressive on the mound? Will he keep his cool when answering questions from the media? Will he be able to have a short memory?

We won’t know until he’s faced with such issues. But I’m not nearly as concerned about Hunter as some others are. I think, at the least, he’ll be fine. And I think he has the potential to be an above-average closer.

** Buck Showalter kept saying this spring that David Lough may at some point play his way into the leadoff spot. Then, in the first week of the season, Lough has hit leadoff twice. So, that didn’t take long.

Here’s the deal: Buck loved what he had in Nate McLouth last year -- a leadoff hitter with speed that disrupts the opposing pitcher. And he’d love to have that again in Lough, at least against right-handed pitchers. If Lough proves he can hit consistently in the majors, I’d be surprised if he’s not batting leadoff against righties for the majority of the season.

** Through this first week, I have the same concerns about this team that I did in 2012 and 2013. The starting pitching may not measure up to the rotations of quality opponents, and the offense is stagnant when it doesn’t hit homers.

I think the rotation, especially with the addition of Ubaldo Jimenez, is better. But it absolutely needs significant contributions from its No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 starters to make this team contend. Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris all have talent. But they need to show it consistently.

As for the offense, I am worried that it is still too one-dimensional (though power is a great dimension to have). There was a bright spot Sunday, though, when Nick Markakis tripled in a tie game in the eighth and Adam Jones followed with a great at-bat against Justin Verlander. He fouled off four pitches, including two mid-90s fastballs, before hitting a deep sacrifice fly that proved to be the game-winner.

** It’s a small sample size, but I’ve been impressed with Steve Lombardozzi so far. He can play defense and gets his money’s worth at the plate. He was a perfect fit for this team.

** I didn’t pick the Tigers to win the American League Central for the first time in years (I went with the Kansas City Royals), because I’m not sold on their defense or bullpen and thought giving up Doug Fister was a bad move.

Well, after seeing them for three days, I still think I’m right on about their defense and bullpen. But it may not matter. Their starting pitching is so darn good, and I didn’t even see reigning Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer pitch (and fifth starter Drew Smyly was relegated to three scoreless innings in relief). So, yeah, I may want to revisit that prediction.

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