Hernandez claims role of fifth starter

Hernandez claims role of fifth starter

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The most anticipated competition in Orioles camp is over.

In a move that was made official prior to Tuesday's 10-9 loss to the Tigers, David Hernandez was named the team's fifth starter, with his primary competition, Chris Tillman, reassigned to Triple-A. Manager Dave Trembley called the decision to move Tillman the "best thing for the team and for his development."

"He was put in a situation last year where he came up to the big leagues because of need," Trembley said of Tillman, who entered this year's camp as the front-runner to win the fifth-starter spot.

"He is going to be a fantastic Major League pitcher for a long time. The kid pitched in the big leagues last year at 20 and this year comes to Major League Spring Training at 21, but there are some things he needs to get better at. And I'd rather see him, and we're all in agreement, we'd rather see him do that at Triple-A than in the big leagues at this particular point in time."

Tillman said he could see it coming the past few weeks. Still, the young right-hander was clearly disappointed in the final decision and struggled to hold back tears and keep his composure while addressing the media.

"I went into the offseason with that mentality [that it would be a competition]," Tillman said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I wouldn't say I'm blindsided, but I did expect more of myself, obviously. I didn't pitch as well as I probably should have."

In five spring games, Tillman had a 3.86 ERA, allowing seven earned runs over 16 1/3 innings. The 21-year-old's strikeout-to-walk ratio (9K/10BB) is a glaring statistic, particularly given that the Orioles have made it clear the kid gloves are off, and they won't carry a 13th pitcher on the team.

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Although Tillman opened camp as the leading candidate, Hernandez thrust his name into fifth-starter contention with his recent outings. He retired nine of the first 10 Red Sox batters he faced Saturday, allowing four hits over five scoreless innings with six strikeouts. He lowered his spring ERA to a 3.00 in the process, and impressed Trembley with his tenacity and ability to escape several key jams -- including a bases-loaded, no-out scenario in the fourth.

"As long as I got my work, I knew somebody would watch, somebody would notice," said Hernandez, who started the spring pitching out of bullpen. "I just got a couple of starts, and I'm thankful I was able to do well in those starts."

Hernandez made his first appearance as a starter on March 16, and is 1-1 in two official Grapefruit League starts, not including a 75-pitch outing in a Minor League game. In 15 innings, Hernandez has allowed five earned runs, and he has 20 strikeouts to three walks.

"There was definitely shock value," Hernandez said of the decision, which didn't come until Tuesday morning. "I was surprised, to be honest. It's everybody's dream to be on a Major League roster, let alone on the Opening Day roster. It's something special."

Preceding Hernandez in the Orioles' rotation will be Opening Day starter Kevin Millwood, Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Matusz and Brad Bergesen, who will start Baltimore's home opener on April 9.

The third candidate for the fifth-starter job, Jason Berken, is expected to make the Opening Day roster in place of injured Koji Uehara, and will likely be the Orioles' second long-inning man.

Hernandez acknowledged that he wasn't the top option for the fifth-starter job entering camp, a fact he used as motivation.

"Hopefully, I pushed Tillman to get better, and I pushed Berken to get better," Hernandez said of the trio, who are close friends off the field. "[Tillman's] going to start plenty of times. There's no doubt about it. He's that good of a pitcher."

Tillman will join a stacked Norfolk rotation that includes Jake Arrieta, Brandon Erbe, Troy Patton and Alfredo Simon. While there, Tillman will look to re-establish consistency with his pitches and in his delivery, and he said he will continue to work on his newest pitch, a cut fastball.

"We're happy with the changeup progression this last year and [the organization] wants to see that with the cutter, I think," Tillman said.

"I think if I were to stick with [throwing] my fastball, changeup, curveball, it would have been a totally different outcome. [This spring] I was working on my cutter. I'm not saying where I would have been, but I think the results would have been a different outcome."

"I'm excited. I think the cutter's going to help me. I'm excited to see where that takes me."

Tillman is expected to meet with pitching coach Rick Kranitz on Wednesday to establish a plan for his time in Norfolk, an assignment that everyone acknowledges won't be permanent.

"[Tillman's going to] go to Triple-A, be in the rotation and try to get himself into situations so when he does get called up here, he's rearing to go and ready to go," Trembley said.

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.