Even after huge win, Orioles facing tough dilemma with Tillman

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The Orioles had much to be happy about following their 13-9 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday to earn their biggest series victory of the season.

Despite blowing an early 7-0 lead, the Orioles secured their fifth consecutive series win and moved back to three games above .500. Not only did they snap the Blue Jays’ eight-game winning streak at Rogers Centre on Saturday, but the Orioles have now won two straight series against their American League East foe after a 1-5 start against the highest run-producing lineup in the majors.

You could argue their wins on Saturday and Sunday were the biggest of the season so far as the Orioles outscored the Blue Jays by an 8-1 margin in the final three innings of both games.

But the impressive resiliency reminiscent of last year doesn’t erase a major problem staring manager Buck Showalter and the Orioles squarely in the face.

Once again, Chris Tillman was bad on Sunday.

Really bad.

After the Orioles scored seven runs off Scott Copeland in the top of the second, their best starter over the previous three seasons could only record one out in the bottom half of the inning before giving way to the bullpen. Everything he threw was up in the strike zone and over the heart of the plate, once again making you wonder if his lower back issues continue to linger and are impacting his ability to fully extend with his delivery.

You don’t go from being so good for three seasons to this poor without wondering if there’s something wrong physically. Tillman threw first-pitch strikes to only two of the 10 Blue Jays hitters he faced and allowed six runs, six hits, and two home runs in just 1 1/3 innings on Sunday.

“Chris has just got to get back into attack mode,” Showalter told MASN after Sunday’s win. “You trust the pedigree and the background, but he’s capable of better than that. We need to get that from him.”

How poorly has Tillman fared in four starts against Toronto this year? The right-hander has a 15.00 ERA in 15 innings against the Blue Jays. Against everyone else, Tillman has a respectable 3.92 mark.

Of course, the Blue Jays have hung a slew of crooked numbers on the scoreboard this season, but Sunday’s outing elevated Tillman’s season ERA to 6.22, which dwarfs Ubaldo Jimenez’s 4.63 mark at this point last season that led to the latter being sent to the disabled list and, eventually, the bullpen. Even with numbers skewed by Toronto, you just can’t forgive Tillman’s poor 2015 performance because he’s frequently faced the Blue Jays as they’re a major league opponent just like every other lineup he’s faced.

At least the Orioles don’t face Toronto again until early September.

A few weeks ago, we pointed to Tillman’s difficult first two months a year ago as good reason for remaining confident as he rebounded from a 5.20 ERA in his first 13 starts of 2014 to allow three or fewer earned runs in his next 20 outings to ultimately finish the regular season with a 3.34 ERA. But we’re less than two weeks away from the Fourth of July and last year’s early struggles pale in comparison to what we’ve seen so far in 2015 as he’s registered just five quality starts in 14 outings and is averaging 4.5 walks per nine innings.

Forget about the longtime debate over whether Tillman is really an ace as the 27-year-old isn’t currently performing like someone worthy of remaining in a major league rotation, but herein lies the problem. The right-hander is out of minor-league options and the Orioles obviously aren’t releasing him — he’s under club control through the 2017 season — but you wonder how many more chances Showalter can give his Opening Day starter of the last two seasons before he has little choice but to send him to the bullpen.

To be fair, fellow starter Bud Norris sports an ERA (7.57) more than a run higher than Tillman’s, but his 3.78 ERA in three starts since returning from the DL at least provides some optimism that he’s made some adjustments after a month-long absence.

Both need to be on notice at this point as it relates to their spots in the rotation.

With Kevin Gausman healthy and back in a starting routine after being optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday, the Orioles have a starter waiting in the wings who posted a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts for a division-winning club last year. Time is running out for Tillman to reverse a nightmarish start to the 2015 campaign.

As Showalter pointed out, the 6-foot-5 hurler is a major reason why the Orioles completed three straight winning seasons and twice made the postseason over that time, but the starting pitcher would be the first to tell you he’s been a weak link in 2015.

You just wonder how much longer the Orioles can wait as they find themselves in the midst of another tight division race while their de facto ace entering the season continues going nowhere fast.