Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 43 – Josh Tomlin

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Countdown to Opening Day – 43

The Cleveland Indians rode with their Little Cowboy deep into the sunset of the 2016 season.

Had it not been for the October heroics of the Indians’ fifth starter Josh Tomlin, Cleveland’s postseason dreams may have more resembled a daydream. With two-fifths of the starting rotation out for the majority or entirety of October and another two men dealing with injuries heading into or during the playoffs, Tomlin’s ability to pitch against some of the big names in the game helped the Indians participate in the postseason, rather than watch it from their respective couches.

It was a strong return in the final two months of the 2015 regular season that helped put Tomlin back into the rotation mix for 2016. A 7-2 record over ten starts with two complete games, a 3.02 ERA, and a minute 0.84 WHIP with his usual plate control gave some hope that his shoulder issues that lingered throughout much of the season were a thing of the past.

Getty Images
Getty Images

He claimed the fifth spot in the rotation out of spring as Cody Anderson joined Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar on the pitching staff. Carrasco would fall to injury by the end of April and Anderson would find himself out of the Cleveland rotation and pitching in its bullpen or for the Triple-A Columbus staff, putting all the more pressure on the five men selected to occupy the Indians pitching staff to carry the extra load.

Tomlin started with a flurry in the cool April air, going 3-0 in three starts with a 3.18 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP over 17 innings. He added a 4-1 mark in May with a 4.06 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP in six starts before settling back in with a 2-0 record, a 2.60 ERA, and a 1.04 WHIP over five starts in June.

He was hit hard in his final start before the break, giving up eight runs (five earned) in four and two-thirds innings against Detroit. Despite a strong 9-2 showing with a 3.51 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP in 16 starts, he got a little rest at and after the All-Star break. While he continued to showcase his pinpoint accuracy that had been a staple of his Major League career to date, home runs remained a frequent issue for the right-hander in the first half, as he allowed at least one ball to leave the yard in 14 of those first 16 starts.

He won his tenth game of the season in his first start of the second half, allowing just a solo home run over seven and two-thirds innings. But difficulties were on the horizon, both on and off the field, as his August was marred by an 0-5 performance in six starts. The 11.48 ERA for the month over 26 2/3 innings resulted in his season ERA jumping by more than a full run. He made just one quality start (August 15 against Boston) and otherwise failed to complete five innings in the other five starts while allowing six runs or more four different times. Ten balls left the yard.

Elsa/Getty Images
Elsa/Getty Images

Always the cool, calm, and composed figure on the mound, Tomlin may have been dealing with enough stress off of the field to provide distraction. He left the club on August 17 to tend to family matters while his father was afflicted with a sudden medical condition that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

Down the stretch, he got some time off. He made a one-inning relief appearance on September 5 before making his next start on September 14. The rest may have done him some good, as he allowed just five earned runs (seven total) over his final 25 2/3 innings (1.75 ERA in those starts) with no walks and just one home run allowed.

The good finish left him primed and ready to assume one of the three spots in the Indians’ postseason rotation.

He made his first career playoff start against Boston on October 10 in the American League Division Series and he made it something to remember. He gave the Indians five solid and well managed innings, giving up two runs on four hits with a walk and four strikeouts over five innings before handing the game over to the bullpen in the series clincher in Game 3.

He returned quickly for Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, taking the mound at Progressive Field as the Indians hosted the Toronto Blue Jays with fellow starter Trevor Bauer nursing a lacerated finger. With five and two-thirds innings of one-run ball, Tomlin contained the dangerous Jays lineup, giving up just three hits and two walks while striking out six for his second consecutive postseason win.

With a new opponent again for the World Series in the Cubs and his first significant rest in some time, Tomlin took the mound against Chicago and once again shut down an imposing lineup, giving up just two singles and a walk while striking out one in four and two-thirds innings of shutout baseball. He would not earn a decision in the game, but his bullpen took over and kept the Cubs off of the scoreboard, giving Coco Crisp time to drive in the game’s only run with an RBI-single in the seventh inning at Wrigley.

Tomlin was asked to pitch on short rest in his final outing of the season and was hit hard. He allowed six runs on six hits with a walk and a homer while failing to strike out a batter over two and one-third innings in the Game 6 defeat to even the series at three games apiece.

While Tomlin did not give the Indians the chance to bring home the title in 2016 in his final start, his presence and his efforts in the rotation throughout both the regular season and postseason made championship contention even a possibility as the banged-up staff was missing two of its biggest pieces. His consistency through much of the first half of the season helped the team deal with the loss of Carrasco and the ineffectiveness of Anderson early on and his revival late in the season helped to ensure the team did not falter down the stretch to one of the teams nipping at its heels in the AL Central. He finished the season with a career-best 13 wins, 29 starts, 118 strikeouts, and 174 innings while leading baseball for the second time in his seven-year Major League career in walks per nine innings. It made up for allowing the second-most homers in the league.

Now, the 32-year-old will look to help guide the otherwise hard-throwing Cleveland pitching staff through a regular season that will have the Indians marked with a big target on their collective backs as the team to beat as the defending American League champions. Pitching in the final year of his two-year contract extension (the Indians do hold a team option for the 2018 season), this could be the best chance for Tomlin to be a part of a world champion club while younger and cheaper starting pitching options pile up at Triple-A Columbus, ready and eager for their turn on the Tribe staff.

Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

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