The Braves’ unexpected trek to 90 wins last season was enabled by pleasant surprises and, some will opine, overachievers. Their .500-ish start to 2019 hasn’t yet yielded many similar stories, but one possibility may come via another late-spring pickup.
Josh Tomlin, the long-time Cleveland pitcher who found himself unemployed as the exhibition season came to a close, has already been a key part of the bullpen. His Wednesday trickery — navigating a no-out, bases-loaded jam in a win over San Diego — was his latest achievement.
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Shortly after the Braves’ offense created a four-run lead, it was in danger. Rookie Jacob Webb, who relieved Max Fried, loaded the bases with none out in the seventh. In came Tomlin to face the heart of the Padres order. He got slugger Franmil Reyes into a comebacker, then struck out Manny Machado and Hunter Renfroe.
“The situation happened quickly but I tried to slow it down,” Tomlin said. “I wasn’t trying to go up there and throw a zero off the bat. If they scored a run, we still had the league. Just try to prevent the crooked number and the big inning to lose the lead.”
In a 10-game sample size, Tomlin’s been more than useful. He’s struck out 12 and walked one in 13 innings. He provides needed length and a veteran presence that, until just lately, the bullpen lacked.
Tomlin, 34, is a man among boys in the Braves’ bullpen. Before the recent additions of Grant Dayton and Jerry Blevins, he was the only reliever born before 1990. From 2010-18, he was a mainstay in the Indians’ pitching core, where he was beloved (a career 4.77 ERA doesn’t often warrant the standing ovation Tomlin received in Cleveland).
Even last season, Tomlin was trounced by the long ball. He gave up 25 in 70-1/3 frames, a result of throwing hittable pitches (strikes). He’s allowed only one homer thus far in 2019.
“That’s just amazing,” manager Brian Snitker said after Tomlin escaped Wednesday’s hazard. “That guy, there’s no situation that fazes him. He’s been through it all. He’s a gutsy guy, man. He keeps making pitches. He doesn’t give in. If they hit him, they hit him. But he’s going to get it over.”
Two important elements: Seeing it all and getting the ball over, otherwise rare traits in the current bullpen. Regardless of how Tomlin’s season trends, the Braves had many temporary heroes a season ago.
It may or may not persist through the summer, but Tomlin has already provided surplus value for a last-second grab.
“The main thing is to attack the zone,” he said. “Have conviction in your pitches. Sometimes the pitch you throw might not be the right pitch, but if you’re convicted in that pitch, it is 100 percent the right pitch. I firmly believe that. … If you believe in that pitch, I think that alleviates all the thinking that goes on on the mound. It takes all the stress out of the game and you can go out there and have fun.”