Tomko earns spot in rotation

Tomko earns spot in rotation

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Brett Tomko, who won five of his first six decisions as a starter last season, was named the fifth starter by Dodgers manager Grady Little on Sunday.

Tomko won the competition over Mark Hendrickson, who will pitch long relief, and Hong-Chih Kuo, who pulled a muscle in the area of his rotator cuff last week and will open the season on the disabled list.

"This is not the finish line," said Tomko. "I just got the nod to get in the starting gate."

Tomko would join Hendrickson in the bullpen the first week of the season and make his first start April 10 against Colorado, unless he's needed to replace Brad Penny, who will test his shoulder starting Monday against the Mets after missing his last start. The fifth starter would not be needed again until April 17 at Arizona.

If Penny is healthy, the rotation for the first four games of the season is set with Derek Lowe, Randy Wolf, Jason Schmidt and Penny.

The bullpen includes closer Takashi Saito, setup man Jonathan Broxton, situational lefty Joe Beimel and middle reliever Chad Billingsley along with Hendrickson, who allowed only one run in 10 2/3 innings of relief last September after losing his starting job. Hendrickson's scheduled Sunday appearance was pushed back a day when the decision was made, in part to provide more innings in Sunday's game to Schmidt.

If Little sticks with plans to carry 11 pitchers, the final bullpen spot would likely to go to non-roster right-hander Rudy Seanez, who would be a seventh-inning pitcher, which would leave Elmer Dessens expendable, despite a guaranteed $1.7 million salary.

However, Little wavered a bit on that Sunday, saying 12 pitchers was still "a possibility," undoubtedly because of Penny's uncertain health.

"We feel good about him [Penny] being in the clear, but we want to see his next two starts," said Little. "We still have flexibility down there."

For Tomko, getting the nod is the payoff to an offseason of hard work, better conditioning and a more compact delivery.

"I prepared myself to win a spot," he said. "I didn't expect it, but I was confident. I had the mind-set to deal with it if it didn't go in my favor and do the best I could in whatever role, but I wouldn't have been overjoyed with a different decision. I wanted to earn it and I feel I did."

Tomko has a 5.14 spring ERA, a number inflated by his most recent start, when he allowed six runs in four innings against Baltimore on a windy day at Holman Stadium. Hendrickson's ERA is 5.40.

Tomko was one of general manager Ned Colletti's early acquisitions before the 2006 season. He signed a two-year contract plus an option and he started hotter than any of the Dodgers, going 5-1 with a 2.88 ERA after his first eight starts.

Most of the world has long forgotten those first six weeks and remember instead his nightmare trip to Chicago and New York in early September. Between the two stretches, Tomko slumped as a starter, then suffered an oblique strain that put him on the disabled list for five weeks. When he returned he volunteered for relief duty to bolster a beleaguered bullpen and did well for the first month, allowing two earned runs in 14 1/3 innings.

Again, apparently long forgotten. His troubles actually started with a blown save in Arizona on Aug. 23, but the roof fell in three appearances -- a Sept. 9 blown save at Shea Stadium and a pair of bad outings at Wrigley Field in losses Sept. 12 and 14. Tomko was charged with six earned runs in 1 1/3 innings in that Cubs series, or his 3.64 ERA as a reliever for the year would have been 1.84. Tomko's two postseason appearances were equally forgettable. As a starter last year, he was 6-6 with a 5.12 ERA.

Little said Hendrickson accepted the news.

"He wants to be part of a winning team," said Little. "He knows things happen. He'll be ready to start when we need him and that day will come."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.