BOSTON -- Prospect. All-Star. Ace?
Chris Tillman's breakthrough season has brought him to the edge of baseball stardom, and he reached a milestone Thursday night unequalled by any Orioles starter in the past six seasons.
The 24-year-old used a 3-2 decision over the Red Sox to earn his 15th win, which made him the first Baltimore starter to reach that statistical peak since Erik Bedard in 2006. Beyond the victories, though, Tillman has begun to establish himself as a consistent presence who brings his best every time out.
"He's solid," said manager Buck Showalter. "There've been a couple of games he probably won this year that weren't aesthetically pleasing. He's had some that we just weren't able to finish up."
Indeed, Tillman came into Thursday's outing with a four-start winless streak, and he'd managed to leave with the lead in two of his last three no-decisions. That didn't matter on Thursday, though, and Tillman threw seven strong innings and left with the Orioles leading by a run.
Baltimore got strong work from its bullpen to survive a nervous eighth inning, and Jim Johnson got a key double play in the ninth en route to his league-high 41st save. But Tillman -- who has pitched to an 8-1 record and a 2.93 ERA on the road this season -- was the story of the game.
The Orioles pulled to within 6 1/2 games of first-place Boston (79-56), and they moved to within 3 1/2 games of Oakland for the AL's last Wild Card slot.
Tillman gave up a double and an earned run in the second inning, and Shane Victorino reached him for a solo home run in the sixth. However, that was all Tillman would allow. He stranded a runner at second base in the sixth and handed the ball to the bullpen after taming the Red Sox in the seventh.
"He makes it tough on me," said Showalter of the seventh inning. "He's at 112 pitches, but it's also a sign of a guy who's emptying the tank. He's just letting it rip there. He threw some of his best fastballs that inning, and that's kind of telling you, 'This is what I've got left and I'm going to let it rip there.'"
As recently as two years ago, it was easy to wonder when or if Tillman would be able to take the next step in his development. The former second-round draftee made 36 starts between 2009-11, and he went into the '12 campaign with a 7-15 record and a 5.58 career ERA.
But this is a totally different guy. Tillman has held the opposing team to two earned runs or less in nine of his 12 road starts, and he's managed a 3-1 mark and a career 2.15 ERA against Boston. Tillman, if not quite yet a full-fledged ace, is getting to the point where his teammates think of him that way.
"No doubt," said reliever Brian Matusz, one of Tillman's closest friends on the team. "I mean, a guy that goes out there and throws seven [or] eight innings every outing, has 15 wins at this point in the season against the American League East. I mean, there's no doubt to say that he's an ace."
"I enjoy working with Tillman, first off, and to see him improve -- to see him get to where I always knew he could get -- he has that kind of stuff," added catcher Matt Wieters. "On top of that, he's one of the best teammates in the clubhouse, so it's good to see him succeed. Hopefully he'll keep working."
It's those testimonials -- more than anything else -- that Tillman seeks in way of acclaim. The youngster didn't really want to talk about 15 wins as an achievement Thursday, and every time he was asked about reaching the milestone, he re-cast his answer to deflect it from his own success.
"It's good for the team," he said of his 15th win. "For me, it is what it is, but it's good for the team."
On this night, Tillman had a lot of help. Manny Machado doubled home two runs for the Orioles, and cleanup man Chris Davis gave the road team a key run with another double. Still, Baltimore (71-61) went into the eighth inning having lost eight straight games decided by one run.
Reliever Tommy Hunter got two key outs in the eighth inning, but Matusz came into the game with the potential tying run on third base and David Ortiz at the plate. Matusz had held Ortiz to one hit in 18 career at-bats, and he extended his success by getting the All-Star to strike out swinging.
The ninth brought another crucible. Johnson and Davis converged on a ground ball near first base in the ninth, but Daniel Nava beat them both to the bag for an infield single. No matter: Johnson got a double play, and he then struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia to end it.
"You've got a swinging bunt in the right place and two guys are trying to make a play and do the right thing and it didn't work," said Showalter of the ninth. "What do you do? Go, 'Woe is me?' No, you throw a good sinker and get a ground ball and move on. And then you can't dwell on that, because Saltalamacchia is sitting there. That's why it's the big leagues and it's why they're in first place."
Baltimore will play New York next, and it will need its starting rotation to continue following the path blazed by Tillman.
"I think, especially for us to get into the playoffs, we need everybody that goes out there to be an ace for us," said Wieters. "At times, everybody on the staff has been able to carry a team and help a team out. Tillman has really put together a consistent year for us, which is huge and what we needed."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.