Tillman Making Impact With New Organization

BOWIE, Md.—Chris Tillman, in a recent start for Bowie, poured fastballs for strikes on the outside part of the plate against righthanded batters.

As the righthander threw, the speed of his pitches flashed on a message board above the fans sitting down the first-base line at Prince George's Stadium. The recordings were consistent: 91, 92, 91, 92 and, on occasion, 93.

Chris Tillman
Then, in the top of the third inning, Tillman threw a 76 mph curveball that Erie left fielder Wilkin Ramirez swung at helplessly for strike three. He left the game after throwing six scoreless innings, finishing with nine strikeouts.

Tillman has been making a lot of Eastern League hitters look silly this spring. In his first 10 starts he was 6-0, 2.59. He allowed just 32 hits (including only two homers) in his first 48 2⁄3 innings with 24 walks and 44 strikeouts, and opponents were batting just .185 against the young righthander.

Tillman turned 20 in April, making him the youngest pitcher in Double-A, but then Tillman has always been young for his level. Prior to this season he fanned 184 batters in 166 1⁄3 innings.

"He is a very talented young man. He is on his way quickly," Orioles farm director David Stockstill said.

Did Bowie pitching coach Mike Griffin expect to see a young pitcher dominate so early in Double-A?

"I am not surprised," Griffin said. "He is a real quick learner. "He takes instruction very well, which is very nice to see. He is soaking up information. I am real pleased."

Work On The Side

Griffin, a first-year Orioles instructor, said Tillman has improved from the start of the season in his approach to side sessions in between starts and taking that into his next outing.

"We have a plan. We execute that plan," said Griffin, who was at Triple-A Pawtucket last season. "One phase of his development is that side work. He is able to recognize and adjust in a game. For a 20-year-old that is pretty special."

Griffin, a minor league teammate with Stockstill at Oklahoma City, said those side sessions normally call for 35 to 40 pitches.

"We focus on the mental part of the game," Tillman said of working with Griffin. "My bullpens (between starts) are the biggest thing we are working on. At the beginning of the season my bullpens were a little shaky."

Tillman came to the Orioles prior to this season in the deal that sent Erik Bedard to the Mariners.

"I knew once I got my feet under me I knew I would be fine," Tillman said. "I am not surprised. I have my feet under me now."

Tillman, a second-round draft pick in 2006, was working out at the Mariners' spring complex during the offseason when he began to hear rumors about a possible trade of Bedard to the Mariners.

Tillman started to get some ribbing from Seattle closer J.J. Putz, who was also working out in Arizona.

"You might want to listen to this," Putz said, according to Tillman. "It might happen."

The deal took several weeks, but sure enough Tillman was part of the package acquired by the Orioles. The Orioles also landed center fielder Adam Jones, closer George Sherrill, righthander Kam Mickolio (Bowie) and lefthander Tony Butler (low Class A Delmarva).

Tillman's only prior exposure to Baltimore was when he played in the AFLAC All-American Baseball Classic at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Md., and toured Camden Yards after his junior season at Fountain Valley High School in Southern California.

Last year, Tillman went 7-11, 4.84 in 28 starts between low Class A Wisconsin and high Class A High Desert with 139 strikeouts in 1352⁄3 innings. He entered this season as the No. 67 prospect in baseball.

Tillman has a fluid motion that produces a quality fastball, slider and curve. He is working a lot on his changeup, but only had to use it once against Erie since the command of his fastball was so effective.

"The hitters were late on his fastball," said Stockstill, who sat behind home plate that day with other members of the Orioles front office. "He did not want to give in and throw to their bat speed."

Quiet Aggression

Tillman has drawn a lot of praise but the quiet, 6-foot-5 hurler is not into self-promotion.

"He is quiet, but he gets along well with other players," Stockstill said. "On the mound he gets aggressive."

Off the field, however, Tillman is a California kid who began surfing his freshman year of high school. Tillman said he continues to bodysurf and that he also enjoys fishing on boat trips in the Pacific Ocean or at a lake. He'll even sneak onto golf courses to fish.

On the field, though, does Tillman ever get flustered?

"I don't know if I have seen it yet," Bowie manager Brad Komminsk said. "He has a good arm. He locates his fastball. He has a good breaking ball that is getting better."
Stockstill said the Orioles have no plans to rush Tillman.

"We just want him to be there in Bowie and pitch every five days," Stockstill said. "That was the right place for him to be."

Tillman and the Baysox had a visitor to a recent home game. Jones, after a day game with the Orioles in Baltimore, made the short drive to Bowie to see a night game. Jones was joined by Orioles infielder Freddie Bynum, who had been on a rehab assignment with Bowie just a few days earlier. It was a reminder of just how close the major leagues really are.

"We stay day-to-day here," Tillman said. "We try to keep our focus on day-to-day. It was good to see those guys again."

And certainly it won't be the last.

David Driver is a freelance writer in Cheverly, Md.