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Orioles face thin margin for error with Chris Tillman bound for DL

With the Royals red-hot and the Mariners still lurking, the news that ace Chris Tillman is likely headed to the DL deals a blow to the Orioles’ playoff hopes.

The Baltimore Orioles are in a precarious spot. They’re two games back in the wild-card race as of Tuesday night, but the two teams ahead of them are in their division. Either the Red Sox or Blue Jays will likely win the AL East; in that case, the O’s will have to hold off the Mariners, Tigers and hard-charging Royals. They’re in a playoff spot for now, but their lead is tenuous as the final month of the season approaches.

Holding that lead is hard enough as it is, but it will be even more difficult given Tuesday’s revelation that ace Chris Tillman likely will hit the disabled list with a shoulder injury, per manager Buck Showalter. While it seems like it’ll be a short stay—the earliest he could return is Sept. 5—it’s not good news for a team that is heavily Tillman-reliant.

Tillman, 28, is having a breakout year. He’s 15-5 with a 3.76 ERA; he has 126 strikeouts in 136 innings and his 4.0 WAR is second on the team to Manny Machado.

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Quite simply, the Orioles are a better team with Tillman on the hill. In 26 Tillman starts, the Orioles are 20–6. In 99 games started by other pitchers, the O’s are 49–50.

Kevin Gausman has been good, with a 3.92 ERA, but he’s the only other regular starter with a sub-five ERA. The Orioles rank 12th in the American League with a 4.97 ERA. Take out Tillman and the O’s might have the worst rotation in the league; take out Tillman and there’s no one to carry the pitching load. The likely candidate to replace Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, is pitching to the tune of a 5–10 record and a 6.94 ERA.

And that’s bad news with the defending champs playing like, well, the defending champs. The Royals have allowed one or fewer runs in seven of their last eight games, and they’re on a nine-game winning streak after beating the Marlins Tuesday night. That’s not bad for a team that was six games under .500 at the trade deadline.

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Baltimore can hit, and that might be its saving grace. Mark Trumbo, with 38 home runs and 93 RBIs, has been a revelation. Manny Machado, batting .301 with 28 home runs, should be getting some MVP consideration and definitely deserves more national attention. Jonathan Schoop has been a pleasant surprise with 20 home runs, and Chris Davis has belted 30. The Orioles are the best long-ball hitting team in baseball. That will help; no team is better suited for slugfests.

But to ask them to hold off the Royals with a rotation made up of Band-Aids and gauze is foolish and might be too much. What makes the Royals so dangerous—elite bullpen, clutch hitting, good starting pitching—are three things the O’s lack. An ace helps them match up with the Royals.

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And it’s not just Kansas City. The Mariners, who entered Tuesday 1.5 games back of Baltimore, have a nearly 20% higher chance than the O’s of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus. Yes, the Mariners can hit the long ball, but they also have two pitchers they can rely on in Hisashi Iwakuma (3.78 ERA) and Felix Hernandez (3.26 ERA). Right now, the O’s just have one.

Assuming Tillman only misses a few starts, the Orioles might be able to mitigate the damage. Any more than that, and the Royals have a great shot of overtaking them. There’s no stopper on the roster—and it looks like nothing can stop the Royals, anyway.