With the threat of a fifth consecutive loss looming, Tillman outdueled Tigers ace Justin Verlander to give Baltimore (2-4) its first quality start of the season, a 8 1/3-innings gem that paved the way for a 3-1 sweep-avoiding win.
"He's a bulldog," said Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis, who helped with a triple and some defensive wizardry. "He made all his pitches, and that's why you saw him out there in the ninth inning.
"He's definitely working his way up to that [ace] status. When he came over here in a trade, it's night and day to where he was then to now. He's learning how to pitch, he's learning how to attack the zone, he's got confidence on the mound. And when you got confidence and talent, it takes you a long way."
Sunday's victory -- which saw Detroit suffer its first loss -- was more of the vintage variety, the kind of O's win built on solid pitching, some stout defense and timely hitting that manager Buck Showalter has preached since taking the reins in August 2010. The Orioles' Opening Day starter, Tillman made one mistake on an otherwise dominant afternoon that matched his career high in innings.
Verlander -- who went eight innings and scattered five hits and a pair of walks -- and teammate Max Scherzer talked with Tillman at the All-Star Game a little bit about pitching. But after watching Tillman's performance Sunday, Verlander quipped, "Maybe now I regret telling him anything."
Then Verlander, who threw 112 pitches to Tillman's 113, grew serious.
"He's a great pitcher," Verlander said. "He's had a great start to his career. Today's another example of what he's capable of."
Tillman, who allowed only a solo homer to red-hot Torii Hunter in the fourth, was helped in his final full inning by a pair of stellar catches from David Lough and a diving Markakis.
It was Markakis who got things going the inning prior, tripling into the right-field corner with one out to put the go-ahead run 90 feet away. Adam Jones, who scored the team's first run, delivered with an at-bat that ended -- after four foul balls -- with a deep sacrifice fly that left fielder Tyler Collins caught on the run.
"That's a stick your nose in there against one of the best guys who is coming at you full metal jacket," Showalter said of Jones' at-bat. "Adam would be the first to tell you sometimes he'll win, sometimes Verlander will win. Nicky going to third, a lot of people would throw down the anchor at second and take the double. That was big getting to third there and shortening up the game."
That was all Tillman needed, as he showed no signs of slowing down as the game progressed, blowing a 94-mph fastball by Hunter to end the eighth.
So, just how badly did the mild-mannered Tillman, who has never had a complete game, want to finish things off?
"Badly," Tillman said with a grin, and left it at that.
At an economical 101 pitches to start the ninth, Tillman got Miguel Cabrera to ground out, but he exited in favor of closer Tommy Hunter after Victor Martinez doubled down the right-field line. Hunter struck out Austin Jackson and got Collins to ground out for his second save, giving Tillman the win.
"There's no such thing as a good matchup with Cabrera, but [Tillman] definitely deserved the opportunity," Showalter said.
"A lot of people see Verlander falling on their day and give a 'woe is me.' Tilly is just the opposite. He thinks that's a chance for [him] to really be there when the team needs [him] against some pretty tough odds."
Down 1-0, the Orioles evened the score thanks to Nelson Cruz's two-out sixth-inning double. Jones sent a ball to deep center field for a one-out two-bagger, and Cruz took Verlander's 2-1 pitch and found a hole in right-center to drive him in. Matt Wieters followed with a fading liner, but Jackson snagged it on the run to keep the game tied.
Wieters gave the O's some breathing room in his next at-bat, sending reliever Al Alburquerque's first pitch over the left-field fence for his first homer, a one-out ninth-inning shot before Tillman came back out.
"We needed it out of our starting pitchers," Wieters said. "And he stepped up and took the ball, and it was exactly what we need, especially against a guy like Verlander. You know you are going to have to keep that team off the board, and he did that."
Tillman, who shies away from individual talk, modestly said any of the team's other four starters were capable of what he did on Sunday. But given the team's losing streak, the unbeaten opponent and the task of facing Verlander, the win was more than just one good start.
"I think as a team, we do [relish the challenge]," Tillman said. "In order to get to where we want to go, we got to play against the best. So I think we have a good group of guys, and that's our team mentality, not just me."