CLEVELAND -- When you're a kid, you're taught to hit the strike zone. It might have been a chalk-drawn rectangle on the side of a brick building. Or it might have been a target drawn by some crouching kid's mitt in that first practice after you graduated tee ball or coach pitch. Pound the strike zone, you're told. Don't throw balls.
It gets more complicated as you rise up the ranks. Those blessed with an arm ample enough to light up a radar gun or gifted enough to throw pitches that make devastating ducks and dives learn that sometimes it's not necessary -- or even helpful -- to pound the strike zone. Maybe they can nibble on the corners, get the hitter fruitlessly swatting away at something off the outside edge or jam him with the inside heat. Josh Tomlin, though, knew early in his youth in Tyler, Texas, that he had limited gifts, both in terms of size and stuff. Therefore, he had limited options when it came to learning how to handle opposing hitters. "My dad [Jerry] knew I wasn't going to be a big guy," Tomlin said. "We'd play catch, and he'd make me hit his glove in the chest, or he'd raise it to his face and make me hit it there. It's always been about me hitting my spots and throwing my pitches for strikes." And it was always fair to wonder how far this would take Tomlin, an unheralded 19th-round Draft pick in 2006. Even after he made a fairly promising Major League debut last year in a roughshod Indians rotation, he seemingly remained the type of guy who's always one rough stretch away from the cutting-room floor. That's how it tends to go for those with a less-than-dazzling repertoire. "Very few people are going to put their neck out for those kinds of guys," Tribe manager Manny Acta said. "They have to not fail for too long. Because as soon as they do fail too long, they're usually going to be pushed aside." The 26-year-old Tomlin is in touch with that reality. "I would do the same thing," he said. But in 2011, it's become impossible to push Tomlin aside. Like his Indians team, which has endured endless injuries, a paltry payroll and a June swoon and yet remains atop the American League Central, Tomlin has been relentless in overcoming opposing hitters, as well as the odds. Who joined CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver and Jon Lester as the only AL pitchers to post 10 wins by the end of Independence Day? Josh Tomlin. Who has the seventh-lowest WHIP in Major League Baseball? Josh Tomlin. Who has the least walks allowed per nine innings pitched? Josh Tomlin. (His 1.07 mark is slightly better than that of Roy Halladay, who is at 1.12.) Who is the only pitcher since 1919 -- as far back as the record books will take us -- to go at least five innings in each of his first 29 big league starts? Why, it's Josh Tomlin, of course. It's been a pretty ridiculous rise, given that Acta didn't even know Tomlin's name a year and a half ago. There was no organizational depth chart last year in which Tomlin held a prominent position. In fact, his lone Spring Training appearance with the Tribe in 2010 was a two-inning relief outing on a day the Indians simply needed a warm body from Minor League camp. "Our pitching coaches raved about him because he did in big league camp what he had done in the Minors," Acta said. "But it was like, 'Well, it was only two innings.'" By the time Tomlin had compiled a 2.68 ERA in 107 1/3 innings at Triple-A Columbus last year, he could be taken more seriously. And with their rotation ravaged by injuries and trades, the Indians gave him a shot in late July. He limited the Yankees to a run on three hits over seven innings in his Major League debut, and it made for a cute story. But after everything that's transpired in the first half of 2011, including an outing against the Yanks on Monday night in which he took a no-hitter into the seventh, Tomlin is a legit story, not just a cute one. "I'm definitely not a guy that's going to get recognized," he said. "I just go about my business the same way I've gone about my business the last four or five years and hope it stays that way." Tomlin's success this season is a product of his strike-throwing mentality and ability -- a rare treat in an era of four-hour Yankee-Red Sox games. He's thrown 68 percent of his pitches for strikes. His 64.9 first-pitch strike percentage is 12th-best in the game. "I can't walk people," he said. "If I start walking people, I'm going to be in trouble." And if Tomlin's walking people, something is amiss. "I'm stunned if he walks one," Acta said. "If he walks two, then I want to blame the umpire." The lone problem with Tomlin is that he challenges hitters so often that he's bound to get burned from time to time. He gives up more home runs per nine innings (1.15) than walks. Fortunately for the Indians, nine of his 14 homers allowed this season have been solo shots. But because of Tomlin's strike-throwing and flyball tendencies, Acta has had to be careful in determining when to give him the hook. "You can't go based on pitch counts," Acta said. "If you go based on pitch counts, you'll be waiting until the eighth or ninth inning every time. If he makes a mistake, it's a long ball." But Acta has learned that this "little cowboy from Texas," as he calls him, is good for at least five quality innings, every fifth day. And while every manager obviously wants the stud with lights-out stuff, the consistency Tomlin has provided is the backbone of any reliable rotation. "He's money in the bank," Acta said. The smart money was, seemingly, never on Tomlin reaching 10 wins before the All-Star break. But he did it the old-fashioned way. Throwing strikes. What a concept.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.