GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Every time it looks as though Josh Tomlin is at the end of the line, he finds some slack.
The unheralded Tomlin got off to a miserable start last year, going 4-9 with a hefty 6.17 ERA over his first 16 outings. With seemingly everything — fans, media and the opposition — working against him, Tomlin responded by posting a 6-0 record and 3.11 ERA in his final 10 starts of the regular season.
“His first start last year was horrendous, so his ERA was inflated,” manager Terry Francona said of Tomlin, who struggled at the end of 2016 only to come back and star during the World Series run. “When that happens you’ve got to be mentally strong enough where you could go out there (and) know you’re a good pitcher, even when you look up at the scoreboard and see your ERA is elevated. He’s probably one of the best I’ve ever seen at that.
“He knew he was going to have to fight it the whole year. He just started pitching more like himself.”
Tomlin, who owns a lifetime 4.56 ERA over eight seasons in Cleveland, has been able to succeed at and remain on the big league level without top-shelf stuff because he throws strikes consistently and makes hitters beat him.
“He doesn’t walk anybody,” Francona said. “You can’t run on him. Not only can you not run on him, but there’s usually three or four hitters in the lineup where you can actually play behind the runner at first and take the hole away. I don’t think you can quantify how many runs we’ve saved, but I guarantee you we’ve saved runs just because of that. He never hurts himself on the mound, fields his position. He had gotten away from some of the things that made him good (last year) and when he got back to it, it was fun to watch.”
When Francona says Tomlin doesn’t walk anyone, he means it.
Tomlin led the majors last year in fewest walks per nine innings (0.89) and in strikeout/walk ratio (franchise record 7.79). He enters this season on a streak of 129 starts without a walk, which ranks third in major league history.
As bad as it got last year, Francona hesitated to remove Tomlin from the rotation despite plenty feeling as though it was the right move.
“Especially with veterans, unless I know that they’re done, I’ll stick with them, because you can really make some mistakes (if you don’t),” he said. “I just think if you start waffling a little bit or you kind of go with the flavor of the week, I don’t think that’s going to work very long with veterans, and I don’t blame them.”
Tomlin made his exhibition debut Monday in Cleveland’s 7-6 loss to the Brewers in Maryvale, Ariz., tossing two scoreless innings and allowing a hit and striking out two.
He is a strong candidate to win one of two spots in the rotation in a battle this spring with right-hander Mike Clevinger and lefty Ryan Merritt.
Though a spot in the bullpen might be the only way for Merritt to make the team, Francona doesn’t want the left-hander to try to pitch like a reliever.
Merritt is out of minor league options and must be on the Opening Day roster or the Indians risk losing him on waivers. If he doesn’t win a spot in the rotation, the bullpen is the only destination in Cleveland.
“He doesn’t need to do anything different,” Francona said of the 2016 ALCS hero. “He just needs to pitch. It’s going to come down to us making the decision. I don’t think it’s going to come down to how he’s throwing the ball. He’s pretty consistent with how he throws the ball. I think it will be more of how we’re situated, keeping the other starter knowing that we’re a little bit thin (in the) starting (rotation) after our (five) guys is important. Do we think it’s realistic that we could keep him? Things like that, we’ll have to take into consideration.
“OK, you’re keeping (Merritt), but then the first time that something goes wrong ... but saying that, if he’s in the bullpen, he’s the one guy that can keep something from going wrong. So we’ll see. We’ll have time to think that one through.”
Right-hander Cody Anderson is trying to resurrect his career.
Three years ago as a rookie, Anderson appeared to be on path to becoming a workhorse big league starter when he went 7-3 with a 3.05 ERA in 15 starts. Then elbow issues arose in 2016, ultimately resulting in Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of last season.
“It’s easy to feel out of sight out of mind when you’re out here for a year,” Francona said of Anderson, who spent much of 2017 rehabbing in Goodyear. “I said, ‘Hey, do your rehab correctly,’ and I said, ‘At some point this year, you’re going to be a starting option for us.’ I said, ‘Just don’t get ahead of yourself.’
“Because we haven’t forgotten. I mean, he was on the fast track to being an innings eater. That hasn’t changed. His timetable just got altered.”
Anderson, who is throwing bullpen sessions for the first time in more than a year, won’t appear in an exhibition game after being transferred to the 60-day disabled list to clear room on the 40-man roster for recent waiver claim RHP Ben Taylor. He could be an option for the Indians in the second half.
Prior to the game in Maryvale, Jose Ramirez, who has called Francisco Mejia the best hitter on the team, took the prized catching prospect into the video room. Ramirez didn’t play against the Brewers, but Mejia hit a two-run homer in the game.