August 22 is a big day for Josh Tomlin. Yes, it’s an off-day for the Tribe, but it also marks one year since Tomlin’s Tommy John surgery. And that one year mark is absolutely something to celebrate, as it’s understood that the rehab process takes at least one calendar year. Tomlin feels that on August 22, 2013, he’ll be ready to hop back on board with the Tribe.
“I set that goal when I had the surgery,” Tomlin said of the upcoming date. “It was August 22, and I knew it took one year. The goal was to be back in the big leagues at that time. Regardless if that’s August 22 or September 1, I wanted to try to get back to that level and try to get hitters out in the big league level again before the year was out.”
Tomlin said he has had conversations with the Indians staff regarding his options for the 2013 season after August 22.
“We’re not going to rush the process by any means,” Tomlin said. “But if I feel good, and there’s a need, then I’m definitely ready to go.”
Tomlin underwent Tommy John surgery last August to repair his right elbow after being placed on the 15-day DL on August 14, 2012, with what was then reported as “elbow inflammation.” The much more serious injury faced by Tomlin put his 2012 season in perspective – he had pitched in 2011 that resulted in career-best records in every major category (12-7 record, 4.25 ERA in 26 starts, 89 strikeouts and a 1.077 WHIP). However, 2012 had Tomlin posting a 6.36 ERA in 16 starts with a 5-8 record and 1.461 WHIP.
After the first week of August, Tomlin was sent to the bullpen in an attempt to change his downward spiral. However, even that change of pace did not help the pitcher, and it was soon determined that the cause of his struggles was more than simply a bad year. His surgery was performed not long after.
Tomlin said the monotony of the process has been the most frustrating aspect of rehabbing his arm.
“The same thing you do day in and day out, that’s the worst part of it,” Tomlin said. “But you’ve got to understand the process before you get it, and seeing that that’s what it’s going to take to get back to the level you were at before you had surgery. It is what it is, but it is frustrating.”
Since last August, Tomlin has spent time rehabbing in Arizona and with minor league clubs. He has pitched two rehab appearances with the Lake County Captains on August 1 and August 4, pitching one inning during each outing. On August 1, Tomlin threw eight pitches to retire the opposing Fort Wayne TinCaps in order in the seventh inning. It was Tomlin’s first outing out of Arizona.
“It felt great,” Tomlin said of his first appearance. “It’s great to go out there and get your work done and if it only takes eight pitches, all the merrier.”
Although he only threw eight pitches on the mound, Tomlin said he threw about 25 to 30 pitches in the bullpen.
“The arm feels great,” he said following the inning. “It feels really good. I know the process is 12 months, but I feel good where I’m at right now. And hopefully as I continue, as I keep building up those innings, it feels the same way.”
On August 4, Tomlin threw 12 pitches, including one strikeout, to retire the side in order in the eighth inning against the Great Lakes Loons. He said that the whole rehab process is about getting on the field, throwing, and feeling good enough afterwards that another appearance in a few days is possible.
“It’s about getting a feel for your pitches on both sides of the plate,” Tomlin said of his rehab appearances. “It’s about getting to where you want to be at, to where you’re going one hundred percent. I feel like I’m at that spot where I’m able to do that. Tonight, the command was a little off, but that’s to be expected a little bit.”
“For me, it’s how I’m recovering is the most important part,” Tomlin said. “Feel good on the mound, the next day, get your work in, get ready to go in two days.”
Although he was a starter for the Tribe when he played, Tomlin has been pitching out of the pen during his rehab appearances. When asked if he would want to return in his regular role as a starter, Tomlin said he would take any role given to him by the Indians.
“I don’t care, either one,” Tomlin said of coming back to the team as a starter or in the bullpen. “I just want to get back to the big leagues and help the team win any way that I can.”
But, the real question is, will Tomlin be back with the Indians this season?
He’s looked good in his Lake County rehab appearances. His velocity ranged from a 92 mph fastball to a 72 mph change-up. He threw a cutter, change-up, curveball and fastball.
Despite being able to pitch well at the minor league level, the major league level poses a different set of concerns. While he may pitch well against Low-A hitters, what’s to say that Tomlin could pitch the same against his old competitors in the big leagues?
Tomlin, however, feels that he would be able to pitch back with the Indians based on where he is right now.
“I think I could,” Tomlin said when asked if he could throw an inning at the Major League level the way he threw at Lake County. “That’s kind of a hard question, because you don’t know how your stuff is going to play out up there. I mean, it’s a different ballgame up there, no doubt, but I feel confident and I feel healthy enough that I could go out there. I don’t know about getting up and down several times, but it’s still early in the process, but I feel like I could.”
“Every time you go to the mound, you go out there and you throw the ball, 12 pitches, eight pitches, 25 pitches, it’s one step closer,” Tomlin said. “It’s one step closer every time you go to the mound and come off of it healthy. That’s me and the main goal at this point.”
Should Tomlin return to the Tribe this season, he will most likely not be pitching in a starting role. Although the Indians are making moves such as starting Danny Salazar instead of Ubaldo Jimenez on Wednesday, it seems unlikely that they would return Tomlin to the starting lineup. Jimenez may be struggling and experimented with in his roster spot, but it doesn’t seem smart to throw in a recently-healthy pitcher back into the starting spot at this point in the season. He’s been pitching out of the pen in his rehab, and, with the Major League bullpen have an unexpected falling apart as of late, it may be more effective to keep Tomlin in a bullpen position.
Tomlin said that he will be in attendance during the Detroit series, sitting in the dugout with his teammates throughout the week when he’s not making rehab appearances. The success of his team has added to Tomlin’s drive to return permanently to the boys downtown this season.
“Absolutely [its motivation]. They’re in the pennant race!” Tomlin said about the success of the Indians. “Everybody wants to be a part of that; I’m no different than everybody else. I want to get there and try to help out as much as I can.”
It seems unlikely that, even with surgery and rehab, Tomlin will return to his stellar 2011 level of performance. A starting role is most likely a longshot for Tomlin, especially this season. At best, I could see a September call-up for the pitcher, with a few appearances out of the bullpen as the pennant race continues. I doubt regular appearances will occur until 2014. However, if he can up his inning count with minor league clubs without a struggle or concern, a few experimental appearances do not seem completely out of the question.
It is, and will continue to be, a waiting game for the pitcher, and Tomlin’s doing all that he can to prove that, when the waiting is over, a decision will be made in his favor.
“Soon, I’ll give you that,” Tomlin said when asked when he feels he’ll be ready to retake the mound at Progressive Field. “Soon. If it were up to me, I’d say I’m ready now, obviously, but that’s just the competitor in everybody. Everybody would say the same thing, everybody wants to get up there and pitch as fast as they can. But, the process is one year. So August 22 will be one year, and we’ll go from there.”