SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — Chris Tillman likened his 2013 season to inserting the final pieces into a jigsaw puzzle.
Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter compared the right-hander's breakthrough campaign with a student belatedly earning a diploma.
Both analogies work. Tillman finally put it all together in his fifth year in the big leagues, and the result was a 16-7 season that doubled his career wins total and put him in line to make his first opening-day start on March 31 against the World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
Tillman was 16-19 over 51 games before 2013, when he won seven straight decisions from May 24-June 30, earned a trip to the All-Star game and finished with a 3.71 ERA.
His performance was the result of getting his 6-foot-5 frame in shape, then adding a heavy dose of confidence. The right-hander's transformation began after he went 3-5 in 2011 and continued in 2012, when Tillman went 9-3 after spending the first half of the year in the minors.
"After that 2011 season, something had to change. It just wasn't working," Tillman said this week. "That offseason was the first I trained with (former Oriole) Brady Anderson. Then there's the mental part of it. I came into spring training in shape and confident. I think confidence has a lot to do with this game. It's all mental."
Tillman arrived at spring training last year knowing he was out of options. If he didn't make the Orioles, he probably would end up elsewhere.
"Most guys, when they're out of options they go one way or another that spring," Showalter said. "Tilly walked around here, like, 'OK here it is. It's come to a head now. Let's go.'"
Tillman was a different pitcher in 2013, when he fulfilled the potential that made him one of the key elements in the 2008 trade with Seattle that also brought Adam Jones to Baltimore. Jones grew into an All-Star, and now Tillman is one, too.
"I think Chris just, in a lot of ways, graduated. He just did," Showalter said.
Or, as Tillman put it, "It's a process. It's big puzzle you've got to put together. There are a lot of pieces that have to fall into place."
There once was a time when Tillman would become flustered when things went awry, and the result was a big inning that was put the Orioles in an insurmountable hole.
The older, wiser Tillman refused to let that happen.
"He figured out how to eliminate damage in that inning or two he might get out of whack," Showalter said. "I've seen him almost invent pitches, a cutter here, take a little something off the fastball. He's learned that more isn't always better."
Showalter has put off naming his opening day starter, but Tillman holds the edge over newcomer Ubaldo Jimenez. Tillman wants it, but is diplomatic about the pending decision.
"We've got so many guys on this team who are capable of doing it. That's what's special about this team," he said. "We can run anybody out there and have a chance to win. We all trust each other, we rely on each other."
When he first arrived in Baltimore after being shipped from Seattle, Tillman was disappointed. Now, he couldn't be happier.
"I had just got comfortable in the organization, had gotten to know everybody, and then all of a sudden I get a call saying, 'Welcome to the Orioles,'" he said. "I had to start all over again. It was tough because I young and didn't know anybody here. But it turned out to be a blessing in surprise."
Now that's he's established himself at the top of the Baltimore rotation, what can Tillman do to gain elite status?
"Keep on the path," Showalter said.