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Is It Time For The Orioles To Worry About Chris Tillman?

June 6, 2014

The Orioles' three-game series in Texas June 3-5 went pretty well overall, with the Birds taking two out of three games to finish 5-5 during their 10-game road trip. But it was the June 5 series finale -- and starter Chris Tillman's latest ugly outing -- that might have O's fans buzzing the most.

Tillman, for the second time this year, was chased from the game after pitching one full inning. Tillman allowed nine of the 11 batters he faced to reach base (on six hits and three walks), the first four of the first inning and the first five of the second. He departed in the second inning with two runners aboard and nobody out and was charged with five runs in all -- and the damage could've been worse had reliever Brad Brach not stranded his inherited base runners.

The start continued a discouraging trend for Tillman, who has allowed 20 earned runs in 14.1 innings (12.56 ERA) during his past four outings. His ERA for the season now sits at 5.20. With each start, it seems, Tillman is regressing further from his breakout form of 2013, when he emerged as the Orioles' ace.

Whereas last year, Tillman was a model of consistency and durability -- going six or more innings during 23 of his 33 starts, including 21 quality starts -- this year, he has turned into a Jekyll-and-Hyde type of hurler, pitching some masterpieces, but getting chased from the game early at other times.

Of Tillman's 13 starts this year, three have been gems: a complete game shutout at Kansas City May 16, and back-to-back outings of 8.1 and eight innings April 6 and April 11, during which he allowed one earned run combined. His cumulative ERA for those three games equates to 0.36.

But when Tillman hasn't been excellent, he usually hasn't been even adequate. Of his 10 other starts, he has worked fewer than six innings during eight of them. Three times this year, Tillman has been chased in the fifth inning or earlier -- something that happened to him twice last season, and not at all during his final 22 starts. His shortest outing in 2013 was 3.2 innings, during his first start of the season. This year, his shortest outing has been one inning -- and he's done it twice.

Compared with his performance last year, Tillman has regressed across the board in strikeouts per nine innings (7.8 to 7.0), walks per nine (3.0 to 4.1) and hits per nine (8.0 to 9.5). His average fastball velocity is down -- it was 91.6 in 2013 and was 90.5 entering his June 5 start -- and his command has taken a step back.

Recently, Tillman attributed his struggles to mechanical problems, telling reporters he's had trouble repeating his delivery. It's also possible that Tillman isn't pitching at 100 percent health, because he has reportedly battled a groin injury at various times this season.

Whatever the explanation, Tillman's decline in 2014 has played a major role in the Orioles' rotation struggles this year. The question is, what's next? If Tillman's groin is still giving him trouble, the O's could choose to place him on the disabled list and hope that rest and rehab can get him back on track. 

But if Tillman is truly healthy and simply continues to struggle, the Birds may be forced to make an uncomfortable decision about him soon. Do they continue to run him out to the mound every five days and hope he resolves his issues? Would they consider moving him to the bullpen temporarily until his command improves?

Tillman remains a key player for the 2014 Orioles. If he doesn't turn things around, the Birds could be facing an uphill battle to stay in contention.

Here are a few other thoughts regarding the Orioles' series in Texas.

• The Birds' bats certainly found the hot weather of Texas -- with game-time temperatures of 88, 91 and 89 degrees -- to their liking. The ball was flying out of the ballpark, with the O's hitting six home runs during the three games as part of their 20-run, 38-hit attack (including 17 hits during their 8-3 win June 3, their second-highest hit total of the season). Center fielder Adam Jones led the charge, going 8-for-14 with two homers and six RBIs during the three games.

• Orioles outfielder/designed hitter Nelson Cruz had success during his return to Texas for the first time since leaving the Rangers -- with whom he spent the past eight seasons. Cruz walloped a 420-foot three-run homer during the opener -- his league-leading 21st blast -- then went 3-for-5 during the Orioles' 6-5 win June 4.

• Speaking of former Rangers, the O's also brought former Texas slugger Chris Davis -- who hit his eighth home run of the season June 4 -- as well as ex-Rangers reliever Darren O'Day, who worked two total scoreless innings June 3 and 4. For the most part, the Birds have gotten production out of their former Rangers this season, though Tommy Hunter, another ex-Ranger, is currently injured and was deposed as closer.

• The June 5 finale was a rough one for normally sure-handed shortstop J.J. Hardy, who quadrupled his season errors total by committing three during one game -- the first three-error game of his career. His two miscues in the seventh inning allowed the Rangers to break a 5-5 tie and denied the Birds a chance at a three-game sweep. It wasn't the most memorable series for Hardy, who also extended his 2014 home run drought to 207 plate appearances.