NEW YORK -- Last September, Chris Tillman was home in California and watched from his couch as the Orioles posted a resurgent 15-13 final month. This year, Baltimore is pushing for its first playoff berth in 15 years, and the 24-year-old Tillman is helping lead the charge.
"That in itself is a positive," said Tillman, who posted a 5.52 ERA in 13 Major League starts last season, and has been able to avoid the back-and-forth shuttle from Triple-A Norfolk that made up the previous three seasons. "Being able to pitch deep in games and giving the team a chance to win consistently is a good feeling. The most important thing with a starting pitcher is you know after the game you gave your team a chance to win. And I've been happy with that so far."
Since being promoted from Norfolk for his season debut July 4, Tillman has been able to find a level of consistency that has eluded him in seasons past, pitching to a 2.38 ERA in 10 games. He was optioned once prior to the All-Star break -- a roster technicality that wasn't indicative of performance --but hasn't missed a turn in the O's muddled rotation.
Instead, the young right-hander is thriving, using a simplified delivery and growing confidence to post a 2.95 ERA in his last three starts, including seven scoreless innings against the White Sox on Tuesday, in which he allowed only an infield single.
"It's hard to get here, but it's harder to stay," Tillman said. "I think you get here, and then you kind of relax, and that's not the [way it should be]. You got to keep working hard, keep trying to get better. It's always a goal of mine to try to do something every day, make myself feel like I've gotten better."
"He knows that there's another challenge," manager Buck Showalter said of Tillman's mindset this season. "He's really matured about the time in between [starts] and putting his success and failures behind.
"I'm proud of him and the work that he and [Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin] and [Norfolk manager Ron Johnson and, I'm sure, [Orioles director of pitching development Rick Peterson] have done. But it's all been about Tillman. It's about the pitcher, he did it. It's not [Orioles pitching coach] Rick Adair, it's not Grif. It's the pitcher. These guys do this. I think regardless, with his makeup, Tilly at some point in his career would have figured it out."
Tillman will make his next start Sunday afternoon in the series finale against the New York Yankees, a team he has struggled against in his career, going 2-3 with a 8.42 ERA in six starts. He is 2-2 with a 10.69 ERA in four games at the new Yankee Stadium, including one earlier this year in which Tillman battled illness and a five-run (four earned) first inning in which he was able to gut out five frames.
When asked how things finally clicked for him, Tillman -- a highly regarded top prospect who was the Mariners' second-round selection in the 2006 Draft -- said, "I'm getting to understand myself a little better. I think that's the key, is getting to learn yourself and being able to make those adjustments. I don't think you are ever done or have figured it out. Because the second you think you've figured it out, everyone knows this game is a very humbling game and will knock you back down. So, you got to stay off your high horse and try to stay even keel. And keep working. It's never-ending."
Hammel makes Class A rehab start
NEW YORK -- Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was on hand to watch Orioles righty Jason Hammel's rehab start for Class A Advanced Frederick on Saturday night.
It marked the first -- and perhaps only -- rehab outing for the 29-year-old Hammel, who is working his way back from right knee surgery and could be a candidate to start the Thursday's game at home vs. the Yankees.
"Just see how he feels physically and if he's not favoring it at all," manager Buck Showalter said of how the club will determine if Hammel is good to go. "I think the last hurdle is to get over the mental part of it, not thinking about it. I don't care how many [simulated] games [you throw], you get in a game environment like that, [it's different]. So, we will lean on Dan and Hamm. I texted him last night, just wished him good luck. I know he's excited about getting him back out there.
"Hopefully we get good news there and he's a candidate for next time out. If not, he will start in [Double-A] Bowie."
Hammel threw 66 pitches, 47 for strikes, for the Keys on Saturday, allowing no runs and three hits with one walk and seven strikeouts.
He will rejoin the team in Toronto to throw a regular between-starts bullpen session under the watchful eye of pitching coach Rick Adair, regardless of if he needs another rehab start.
Hammel's return would help boost an inconsistent -- but improving -- starting rotation, as the right-hander was the club's best pitcher before hitting the disabled list in mid-July. In his first year with the Orioles, Hammel is 8-6 with a 3.54 ERA in 18 starts despite battling right knee soreness a month before he went on the DL.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.