Against steep odds, Tomlin carving out a name
From humble beginnings, Indians starter has worked for success
CLEVELAND -- Manny Acta did plenty of research before arriving at Spring Training as the Indians' new manager last season. He read countless reports, studied the Major League roster and familiarized himself with the organization's top prospects.
Josh Tomlin's name never came up.
At least, if it did, Acta doesn't remember.
"I didn't even know the kid," Acta said.
This is not a knock on Acta's preparation. It simply falls in line with the rest of Tomlin's life. The pitcher is a fixture within Cleveland's strong rotation now -- Tomlin is 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA through six outings -- but he is used to being overlooked and written off.
Two springs ago, he was not even invited to big league camp.
Told of Acta's comment, a smile crept across Tomlin's face.
The news hardly surprised the pitcher.
Besides, a year ago, who did know Tomlin?
"Not very many people," he said with his Texas drawl.
There were moments throughout Tomlin's youth that let him know that baseball was probably the best path to a career in sports.
Having future NFL running back Adrian Peterson sprinting at him was one.
As a high schooler in Whitehouse -- a small town of about 7,000 in Northeast Texas -- Tomlin used to put on the shoulder pads as a cornerback. Football is a way of life in Texas, and Whitehouse is no different. Tomlin never had a favorite baseball team, but is quick to express his love of the Dallas Cowboys.
There was one problem.
"I was about 150 pounds soaking wet," Tomlin said with a laugh.
During Tomlin's senior year at Whitehouse High School, which draws its students from multiple towns and has Class 4A status in the state, Peterson was a junior for Palestine High. That season, Peterson -- now a bruising back for the Minnesota Vikings -- piled up more than 2,000 yards with 22 touchdowns.
Tomlin was probably lying on his back for a few of those.
Once Peterson broke through the first wave of Whitehouse's defenders, Tomlin was one of the last obstacles in front of the end zone.
"He's a man," said Tomlin, his eyes widening at the memory.
Tomlin quickly notes that he tackled Peterson a few times.
He didn't want to discuss their other meetings.
"I think he had a broken right hand when he played against us," Tomlin recalled. "He had a cast on it, so he couldn't put the ball in that hand. Everybody was trying to go for the ball, but he'd just make everybody miss. It was ridiculous."
Football would not be Tomlin's route to success.
As an only child of Jerry and Elana Tomlin, young Josh had to make do during his hours outdoors.
Tomlin would shoot baskets or go searching for a partner so he could throw a baseball or toss a football. He was always looking for a way to keep busy outside while his parents were busy working.
His mom ran the only barber shop in Whitehouse, a town where Tomlin says "everybody knows everybody." His dad would make the daily commute up to Tyler, where he worked in a power plant at the University of Texas' local branch.
When Jerry Tomlin came home, however, the work day was hardly over.
"My dad pushed me every day. Every single day," Tomlin said. "I'd always ask him to go out there, but he was one of those guys, when I was a kid, if I messed up then it was, 'We're staying at the ballpark until you get it right.'"
Tomlin said his dad was hard on him, but he knew his son's limitations.
"He knew how far to push me before it was too much," Tomlin said.
Tomlin was a shortstop in high school. Cal Ripken Jr. was his favorite player. Tomlin vividly remembers one of his worst games for Whitehouse -- he went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. Following the game, long after his teammates had all gone home, Tomlin headed to the school's batting cage with his dad.
"We stayed there and turned on the lights," Tomlin said. "We were in there for two or three hours."
Tomlin was learning that his route to success would require plenty of hard work.
No scouts came to see Tomlin in high school. No big-time university recruiters were there, either.
Tomlin doesn't hold any grudges, though.
"I wouldn't have drafted me," he said with a smile.
Tomlin did what he always did. He made do.
He made the trip to Lufkin, Texas -- some 80 miles southeast of his hometown -- and attended Angelina Junior College. Tomlin wanted to keep playing baseball. More importantly, he wanted a college education.
"My parents couldn't afford college," Tomlin said. "I couldn't afford college. So I was like, 'I've got to go somewhere where I can get a scholarship, somewhere to keep playing and get school paid for.'"
He spent two years at Angelina and -- just like high school -- no scouts ever came calling with his name on their clipboard. Tomlin hit .351 as an infielder and spent some time as a pitcher in 2005, gaining some attention, but he knows he was never the guy people were there to see.
"The only reason anybody even saw me in the first place was we had guys who could pitch like crazy," Tomlin said. "So they were coming to see them pitch, and I'd happen to be playing pretty good at shortstop or I'd hit the ball pretty decent."
In 2005, the Padres took Tomlin in the 11th round of the First-Year Player Draft. He didn't sign, because he had an offer to play at Texas Tech. Tomlin said it was a chance to "get bigger and stronger" and gain more experience. Texas Tech was also going to let him pitch, and he knew that was his best shot at a pro career.
"I knew I had to pitch," Tomlin said, "I mean, I swung a wet newspaper."
A year later, Cleveland took him with the 581st overall pick in the 19th round.
His stock had slipped, and Tomlin wondered if he'd made a mistake.
"Initially," Tomlin said, "I was thinking I should've took my opportunity when I had it."
He admits to being intimidated by the players he saw in the big leagues.
"I honest to God didn't know what my chances were," Tomlin said. "You look on paper, you look at everybody in the big leagues, you don't think a 5-11 guy throwing 85-88 mph, you don't ever think of that guy going to the big leagues."
On July 23 of last season, the Indians placed left-hander Aaron Laffey on the disabled list with a fatigued throwing shoulder. Cleveland needed someone to plug the hole in the rotation and looked to its Triple-A affiliate in Columbus.
There, Tomlin had gone 8-4 with a 2.68 ERA as quietly as he speaks.
Of course, that strong record was no aberration. Since being drafted by the Indians, Tomlin had pitched for Mahoning Valley, Kinston, Lake County, Buffalo, Akron and Columbus, appearing in 134 games at every Minor League level. He'd also gone 51-24 with a 3.20 ERA.
"That's hard to do," Indians pitching coach Tim Belcher said.
Belcher has a soft spot in his heart for Tomlin. In many ways, they are kindred spirits.
Belcher received little attention when he pitched for Highland High School in small-town Sparta, Ohio. It was only after pitching for Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio, that baseball began to take notice of his ability. Tomlin's story feels very familiar for Belcher.
They even share the same birthday: Oct. 19.
"Can you believe that?" Belcher said with a chuckle. "Him and I have similarities in our backgrounds. That was kind of my past, too. I'm a huge fan of Josh."
Prior to being named Cleveland's pitching coach under Acta, Belcher spent the previous eight seasons as a special assistant to baseball operations. He was always one of Tomlin's biggest supporters. From the first time he saw Tomlin, Belcher saw beyond the lack of size and lack of power.
"We all saw it in the Minor Leagues," Belcher said. "We knew that he was maybe a little undersized and maybe a little under-stuffed, but when you watched him from Kinston all the way up, you could tell he knew how to pitch.
"He's very tough-minded. He stays so even with his emotions."
Tomlin got the call to The Show on July 27.
Nowadays, the baseball world is finally getting to know Tomlin.
The Red Sox know him. The right-hander held them to one run on three hits over seven innings on April 5. The Orioles know him. Tomlin limited them to two runs over six frames on April 16. Plenty of other teams are more than familiar with him now, too.
Since reaching the Majors, all Tomlin has done is go 10-5 with a 3.80 ERA.
"He's been very consistent from Day 1," Acta said. "I wouldn't call it progress. I'd call it consistency. That's what he's done here. From Day 1, he's thrown strikes, changed speeds and just done his thing. He continues to do it."
Entering Monday, Tomlin had a 0.81 WHIP (walks-plus-hits per innings pitched), which was the best in the Major Leagues. His .221 opponents' on-base percentage also ranked first in baseball. Tomlin was second in the American League in opponents' batting average (.174), pitches per inning (13.9) and total bases allowed (51) for starters with at least 40 innings.
Not bad for a pitcher who lacks the body type or the overpowering fastball that catches the eyes of scouts.
Tomlin relies on four pitches -- none that drop any jaws -- with pinpoint location. He has to keep hitters guessing and unbalanced in the batter's box. If Tomlin is unable to do that, he becomes very hittable.
Pitchers like that can also quickly become expendable.
"They just have to prove everybody wrong," Acta said, "and continue to be on top of their game. The day that those guys are not on top of their game, they're pretty easy to push aside for a 6-4, 220-pound guy who can throw 96-97 mph, even if he doesn't know where the area code of the strike zone is."
Cleveland has plenty of those stud pitching prospects, but Tomlin keeps proving people wrong.
His life path has made that necessary.
"I've never been the guy that was a sure-fire, can't-miss big leaguer," Tomlin said. "It was always having to prove yourself day in, day out. I like that. To me, if you fail, everybody expected you to anyway. If you're not good, that's why everybody passed on you in the first place.
"But if you do well, it's like, 'OK, then maybe he did prove us wrong.'"
And maybe more people will get to know him.
People like Acta.
"Yeah," Tomlin said with a grin, "we're on speaking terms now."