Tillman lost his no-hit bid with one out in the bottom of the seventh after Rangers All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler's sharply hit a single between shortstop and third base. Still, in an unlikely story, Tillman outdueled Lee on a festive night in Texas as the Orioles won their third straight game against the Rangers before a big crowd at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Tillman, called up on Saturday from Triple-A Norfolk, ended up allowing two hits and one run in 7 1/3 innings. The 22-year-old right-hander, has a lot fewer questions about himself now.
"I wanted to come up here and make a statement and prove to them that I do [belong]," Tillman said.
Tillman gave credit to his catcher, Craig Tatum, who was playing in place of injured starter Matt Wieters. Tillman pointed to the Baltimore offense, which had a run on the scoreboard after two pitches on a double by Corey Patterson and a single by Miguel Tejada.
"That's huge," Tillman said. "If you get out on top on a guy like Cliff Lee, that's huge. I knew I had to go out there and put up zeroes."
Tillman hardly seemed intimated by going up against Lee, the top trade target in baseball who was acquired by the Rangers in a six-player deal with the Mariners on Friday. The Rangers also honored third baseman Michael Young as their all-time hits leader before the game, causing a 20-minute delay.
Tillman was unfazed. He said he was all over the place in the bullpen, but that Tatum had him nice and calm by game time. As far as the pressure of going up against Lee, Tillman said he was helped by pitching in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 11 last season, a Friday night when Derek Jeter became the Yankees' all-time hits leader on a pitch that Tillman threw.
"Having gone through that, it definitely helped me out," Tillman said. "Although this was my first start back, so that had a little bit to play into it."
Tillman had already thrown a nine-inning no-hitter this season for Norfolk against the Gwinnet Braves on April 28. But he said that was not on his mind when he had his no-no going in the seventh inning. Nor was he fazed when Kinsler broke it up.
"I still knew I had a lot of game going," Tillman said. "The fans were letting me know the most [about the no-hitter]."
Tillman lost his shutout bid with no outs in the bottom of the eighth when David Murphy hit a single but reached third after Adam Jones' error. Tillman followed that up with a wild pitch to score Murphy to cut the Orioles' lead to 5-1.
"The ball just slipped out of his hand," Tatum said.
Tillman had three strikeouts, including blowing a fastball by the American League's leading hitter, Josh Hamilton, in the fifth inning. Tillman had 11 ground-ball outs and allowed only three baserunners on a walk to Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus to start the bottom of the fourth and the hits by Kinsler and Murphy.
"He threw the ball well," Young said. "It doesn't really happen to us very often where we get shut down like that offensively. He was throwing strikes, fastball, curveball, slider, change, mixing speeds and locations. He threw the ball well."
Tillman said the key to the night was establishing his cutter in the first inning. He had never thrown the pitch in 16 Major League games coming into Saturday night, but he decided on the plane ride to Texas that he was going to use the pitch that had helped him throw a no-hitter and a one-hitter for Norfolk this season.
He guesses he used his cutter 15 to 20 times against the Rangers, which was big, because Tatum said Tillman didn't have a very sharp curve ball.
"Coming off a good start in Norfolk, I told myself I just have to carry that over to here," Tillmsn said. "When I came up last time to the big leagues I didn't throw my cutter. I told myself on the plane ride this time, I have to throw it. It's been one of my best pitches, and I had to throw it."
Tillman, who made his Major League debut last season, was making his first start since being called back up for the second time this year. He had been dominating at Norfolk, where in his past 10 starts he was 8-1 with a 1.66 ER. He had a one-hit shutout in his last start on July 5 at Charlotte.
Tillman struggled in his first go-around with the Orioles this season with an 0-3 record and an 1.94 ERA. He averaged less than four innings in four Major League starts earlier this season.
The Orioles built their lead on three home runs, solo shots by Nick Markakis in the fourth and Cesar Izturis in the fifth, and a two-run homer by Jones in the top of the sixth for a 5-0 lead. They ruined Lee's first Texas start -- the Rangers had their largest walkup crowd in ballpark history (14,300 fans), and they got to see Tillman, not Lee, dominate.
The Orioles used an aggressive approach against Lee, something that interim manager Juan Samuel eluded to before the game.
"We had a plan against him," Jones said. "Everybody had the same plan. Almost everyone swung at the first pitches at some point in their at-bat."
Saturday night's victory gave the Orioles their first road series win 87 games into the season.
That should give a boost to the entire Orioles' roster. But no one received a bigger boost than Tillman, who must feel like he belongs in the Majors now.
"How could he not?" Jones said. "He came out and dealt. I've seen the new pitch he came out with and he threw it a lot. He looked just totally different. He looked more poised. He looked like he was a lot more comfortable. That's how he has to be. Don't try to put any added pressure on himself, and he definitely didn't do that tonight."