After an offseason of constant cringeworthy performances from the Orioles' starting pitchers, optimism finally arrived on Monday night. The treacherous wait wasn't comforting, but it was wiped away - at least for the time being - during Opening Day's 3-2 walkoff win against the Twins. Chris Tillman and Tyler Wilson proved that the O's starting pitching might not be as much as a debacle as we've all been anticipating ... well, for now.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the opener was just how good all of the arms looked on the mound. Granted, the Twins are far from the most lethal lineup in the league and really lack offensive firepower. Still, after the "spring of doom" for the starters, it was quite the breath of fresh air.
Fans watching on TV were actually checking in with those at Camden Yards to make sure the Chris Tillman that was coming through the screen was actually the Tillman toeing the rubber. Albeit for two innings, the performance he put on was unlike anything we've seen from him before.
Everything seemed to be working from the first pitch, offspeed offerings included. He only threw 22 pitches (17 for strikes, by the way), but it sure looked like he was going to have the chance to put together one of the best starts he's ever had. It's a shame we'll never get to see the great Chris Tillman Opening Day Perfect Game 2016.
I kid, sort of. After all, we'll never really know.
Probably the most interesting aspect of Tillman's quick outing was the pinpoint accuracy with all of his pitches. Even Matt Wieters said after the game on the MASN broadcast that it was some of the best stuff he's ever seen from him. You could've stripped his jersey off and convinced anyone watching that he was a premier All-Star. His curveballs stayed below the knees with fantastic bite and his fastball pounded the zone leading to his five strikeouts.
One aspect that was rather surprising and shouldn't go unnoticed was the velocity factor. He might've had a little extra bullpen/warmup time with the rain delay, but the heater quickly touched 95 in the second inning and consistently looked like it had a bit more giddy-up than past years. It's hard to read a great amount from two innings of work, though it's equally as difficult to not be impressed with the stuff he possessed.
Per gamecast, Tillman's FB 91; 94-95 today. SL 86, CU 77-78. That's a tick above where he was last year, and good enough for 5 straight Ks.— Jon Meoli (@JonMeoli) April 4, 2016
As for Wilson, you could argue that his day was just as - if not more - impressive than Tillman's. His approach was impressive and true to his style: show up, throw strikes, avoid the sweet spot. It worked, and might've won the game for the O's.
What stood out with Wilson as the overwhelming positive for the youngster was the display of his consistent command. His walk rates were impressive during his past two seasons in the minors, backed up by his pinpoint accuracy during his three innings of work.
After a 1.7 BB/9 rate in 94 innings at Norfolk last year, Wilson is continuing to prove his reliability in the command department. And if he can figure a way to keep free passes to a minimum, his time with the club won't be temporary.
At the very least, Monday was reassuring that if injuries creep up within the starting five, Wilson will be a very fine option for the club.
Now, it'd be a disservice if we didn't mention perhaps the most important factor of Monday's performance - Matt Wieters continues to prove why his health is critical to piling up wins, and his presence behind the plate is critical to any playoff hopes this season.
It's an aspect of the game that goes largely unnoticed, but Wieters helps his pitchers thrive as much as any other catcher in the MLB. It wasn't hard to see that his influence on pitch selection was a driving force behind the solid outings. In the third inning after a leadoff double by Eduardo Escobar, Wieters seemed to take the bull by the horns and single-handedly guide Wilson to a quick one-two-three sequence.
With one out against Byron Buxton, he did a tremendous job at setting up the fastball (at just 91 MPH) with a series of offspeed stuff before Buxton fanned at a the 91 MPH pitch with two strikes. It was a one detail in a very long game, but managing to get a good young hitter to whiff at a run-of-the-mill fastball in a big spot is just one of the examples of Wieters' importance. He's the best catcher that doesn't grab the national headlines, and everyone around the team knows it.
Overall, it's safe to say Opening Day was worth the wait for Buck Showalter and the rest of the O's staff. The rain-shortened Tillman start was a bit of a nuisance, but it happens. The "Tilly/Willy" combo looked sharp, and that's all that really matters.
Encouragement should be plentiful as the Birds begin the year. 161 games from now, I'll tell you whether or not this optimism was worthy. However, if Tillman and Wilson perform even remotely close to what they showed on Monday, the Orioles rotation might not be ranked 30th by the end of the season.