Baseball has been a part of Tim Dillard’s life for as long as he can remember.
That’s because his father, Steve Dillard, spent all or parts of eight seasons in the major leagues as a utility infielder for the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox.
For Nashville Sounds pitcher Tim and his brothers, the game was easily accessible and readily available.
“I came from a baseball family. I had a baseball field in my backyard growing up,” Dillard said. “I was a catcher. My brothers were infielders, and one of them was a pitcher. Someone had to catch them. “
Dillard’s abilities as a catcher got him noticed by the Milwaukee Brewers as a “draft-and-follow” prospect in 2003. The Brewers followed Dillard closely enough to notice his arm and soon the team came to like him as a pitcher more than as the catcher they originally drafted.
“I got drafted twice by the Brewers as a catcher. I actually was pitching a little bit here and there in high school and college, but they actually liked me better as a pitcher,” Dillard said. “They said, ‘We’re gonna sign you, but we want you to pitch.’ I was like, ‘Oh well, at least somebody wants me.’”
Since being signed by the Brewers, Dillard has been trying to settle into a role as a pitcher — be it starter or reliever.
Dillard has spent time alternating between starting and relieving. He had been mostly a reliever last year when he made his major league debut. With the Brewers he tossed 14 1/3 innings, but this season he has been one of the Sounds most reliable starters with a 7-3 record and a 3.98 earned run average in 12 starts.
He said there are differences between being a starter and a reliever that the casual baseball fan might not recognize.
“I think as a reliever when you come in, you just can’t sit there and get comfortable. You can’t sit there and throw the fastball down the middle, as opposed to a starter, who can kind of establish his fastball and throw more strikes,” Dillard said. “As a reliever, you come in, especially in late innings, you’ve got to come in with probably your best stuff. You’ve got to come in throwing every ‘out’ pitch. Every pitch has got to be like you’re throwing an 0-2 out pitch. You can’t just throw a get-me-over. That’s probably the biggest difference I’ve noticed.”
Sounds manager Don Money echoed that in his assessment of the difference as well.
“Relievers could be in there two days in a row, off a day and in two more days,” Money said. “If you get knocked around and you’re a starter, you’ve got four more days to think about it. As a reliever, you get roughed up, we may run you right back out there the next day.”
Money knows Dillard well, having managed him in Double-A Huntsville and Single-A Beloit (Wis.) before this year in Nashville. He sees a pitcher who still is a work in progress and one he says needs to develop one more pitch to his repertoire in order to reach and stay at the big-league level.
“He’s doing well, but there’s still things he needs to work on,” Money said. “I had him in Huntsville, and I had him Beloit. I’ve seen him in both roles, but mainly as a starter. In my eyes, he still needs an off-speed pitch. He’s a sinker, slider type. He’ll throw a forkball or change-up on occasion, but just throwing it doesn’t mean anything. You have to get guys out with it.
“Once you get a pitch over the plate, nobody says you have to throw it 30 times, but you have to let the hitter think about it, that he could throw his change-up or his forkball. You just put it in the back of his mind to think about it. All the good ones do it. All good pitchers plant the seed.”
Dillard says that by being a starter full-time, it has given him the chance to develop more pitches this season.
“When you throw more pitches, your stuff can be a little better,” Dillard said. “When I pitched out of the bullpen, I threw maybe 60 or 70 innings last year. This year, I’ve already thrown . When you get to have that many innings, you get to throw more sliders, you get to throw more change-ups. So everything should be a little bit better.”
Dillard said one of his goals as a starter is simply to give his team a chance to win every fifth day. And that is something he has done, for the most part this season.
“I’m just trying to stay consistent and stay healthy and give the team a chance to win. To me, if you’re a starting pitcher, if you can do that, that’s probably the recipe,” Dillard said.
Of course, the ultimate goal is to get to the majors and stay this time.
The little taste he got in May and September of 2008 was plenty to whet his appetite to accomplish that goal. And it’s kept him hungry.
“When you grind it out in the minor leagues, it’s no treat, but to have that payoff and know what it’s like is amazing,” he said. “Your work ethic gets better, your drive. It reboots you in a way. When you start feeling like you’re on the downturn, it throws you back into the mix and pumps you up a little bit.”