The dog days of summer are over and the heated battles of September are ready to begin.
Every contending team will need their big-time players to step up and Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter appears to have found his general in right-handed starter Chris Tillman.
Tillman is entering what could be a month that defines his future and he does so as one of the hottest pitchers in his division. Baltimore is chasing a playoff spot and has stayed in the hunt thanks in part to Tillman, who has finally seen things click on the mound over the last year.
His latest tactical victory came on Thursday with the Orioles on the verge of being swept out of Boston. Showalter sent Tillman to the hill for the finale and watched his 6-foot-5 ace deliver. Tillman limited the AL East-leading Red Sox to a pair of runs over seven innings, striking out eight without a walk.
A run-scoring single by Stephen Drew with two outs resulted in Boston's first damage off Tillman, who dug in and responded by retiring 10 of the next 11 batters he faced until Shane Victorino took him deep to lead off the sixth inning.
With a mound presence straight out of "The Hurt Locker," Tillman got out of the rest of the inning without further damage and then sat the Red Sox down in order in the seventh to finish off his outing.
"He's always had it. Now all the things he's gone through in the process of pitching are starting to click for him. When he's carrying multiple pitches he can get over the plate, it's a tough presentation for the opposition," said Showalter.
"It all starts with his approach. This guy is scary. Here's mine, let's see what you can do. He's going to come at you. He trusts himself."
At 111 pitches, Showalter took the chance of not sending the 25-year-old out for the eighth. It wasn't easy, but Baltimore's bullpen closed out the 3-2 victory to send the Orioles into a weekend series versus the New York Yankees 6 1/2 games behind Boston in the AL East and 3 1/2 games back of Oakland for the league's second wild card spot.
A few years ago, it wasn't a lock that Tillman would reach this point. A second-round pick by Seattle, he was part of the franchise-reshaping trade the Orioles pulled off with the Mariners on Feb. 8, 2008 as they dealt starter Erik Bedard for a package of players that included Tillman and current star outfielder Adam Jones.
Interestingly, Tillman became Baltimore's first 15-game winner with Thursday's win since Bedard in 2006, though he downplayed the achievement afterwards.
"It's big for the team. For me, it is what it is, but I think it's big for the team," said Tillman.
Tillman, though, didn't earn his stripes overnight. He went 7-15 with a 5.58 ERA in 36 starts with the O's between 2009-11 and began the following season in Triple-A before things seemed to finally click for the hurler upon his return to the Orioles in July.
Tillman went 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA in 15 starts to finish out last year and has taken it a step further in 2013. In addition to his 15-4 record and team- leading 3.61 earned run average, the Anaheim native has been a big-time leader on the road, where he is 8-1 with a 2.93 ERA this year.
And against the two clubs Baltimore is chasing for a playoff spot? Tillman is 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA in four starts versus Boston this year and 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA in two meetings with Oakland.
"There's a couple games this season that he probably won this year that weren't aesthetically pleasing, but he's had some we just weren't able to finish up. He was just a rock. He pitched well the whole game I thought," noted Showalter after the recent win over the Red Sox.
The Orioles are still thinking playoffs ahead of September thanks to Tillman and have plenty of chances to make up ground. Baltimore closes September by playing 10 of its final 13 games versus Boston and Tampa Bay, the other holder of a wild card spot in the AL.
"We've got 30 games left and September is an eternity," said Showalter. "A lot of people who haven't been in the war, it is a long season that starts here shortly. It will edge by and that will be good for us if we're trying to catch up. Don't sell us short."
If Baltimore is still in the mix at the end, expect Tillman to be the one leading the charge.
Just like a good general should.