Tonight at Progressive Field, Josh Tomlin will pitch the biggest game of his life. It is a bigger game than most pitchers ever get to pitch, including a good number of Hall of Famers. If he pitches well and the Indians win, Tomlin will be a hero in and around Cleveland for the rest of his life, and probably for quite a while after he's dead too. If he pitches well but in defeat, it's likely to be forgotten about quickly. If he pitches poorly, the fate of his standing in northeast Ohio will rest on the shoulders of his teammates, but he'll have missed out on a chance at immortality, probably the only chance at it he'll ever get.
To have so much riding on one start, a start on short rest, a start against one of the best lineups in baseball, is unfair. Josh Tomlin though, like the rest of us, has probably learned by now that fair has nothing to do with it.
Tomlin was the Tribe' 19th-round pick in 2006, and most players drafted that late never reach the Majors. Tomlin did make it though, and in 2011 he was something close to a league-average starter, with a very low strikeout rate, but also a walk rate that was so low it led the American League. In 2012 he had to have Tommy John surgery, which also kept him out for most of 2013. Shoulder surgery early in 2015 cost him most of that year, but he rejoined the Indians in August, and did well in ten starts down the stretch. He'd given up a lot of home runs, but few other hits and very few walks, allowing him to post a 3.02 ERA. He pitched well for the first four months of this season, then had a terrible August, a month that included five very bad starts and as well as trauma: Tomlin's father suffered an arteriovenous malformation, a tangle of blood vessels on his spinal cord, which required surgery and left him paralyzed from the chest down.
Tomlin was out of the rotation by the end of the month, and pitched only one inning during a two-week stretch, until the twin injuries suffered by Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco created a vacuum into which Tomlin would be thrust. In four starts during the final three weeks of the regular season, Tomlin had a 1.75 ERA in 25.2 innings. He didn't walk a single batter, helping him to lead the league in walk-rate for the second time in his career, and having struggled for much of the year to keep the ball in the park, he allowed only one home run in those four games.
Before Salazar and Carrasco landed on the DL, the expectation held by most was that Tomlin would be left off the postseason roster. Instead he started Game 3 of the ALDS, giving up two runs in five innings against the best offense in baseball, and picking up the win as the Indians swept Boston. Five days later, in Game 2 of the ALCS, Tomlin gave up only one run in 5.2 innings, and picking up his second victory of the postseason. After almost two weeks between starts, Tomlin got the ball Friday night for Game 3, the first World Series game at Wrigley Field in 71 years. His father had recently been discharged from the physical therapy center where he'd been recovering from his surgery, and insisted on being there to see his son pitch on baseball's biggest stage. Tomlin threw 4.2 shutout innings, allowing only three Cubs to reach base, and setting the stage.
After his fantastic finish to the regular season, Tomlin has a 1.76 ERA in his three postseason starts, each of which the Indians have won. He hasn't given up any home runs, or allowed more than one run in any inning. He's already given this team more than any fan expected. His stuff isn't like Corey Kluber's, or like Carrasco's, Salazar's or Trevor Bauer's, and because of that, I still find myself holding my breath when he's on the mound, scared that the bottom is about the fall out, and the pitcher who gave up 10 home runs and 34 earned runs during just 26.2 innings of work in August is going to return.
Will Tomlin's final pitch be the third out of his fourth or fifth strong inning, or a third-inning home run that puts the Tribe in a four-run hole?
If the troubled version of Tomlin does return, November 1st will make most people forget about his September and October. That wouldn't be fair, but neither life or baseball concerns itself with that. Tomlin has pushed back against expectations, he's pushed back against a family tragedy, and he's pushed back against three of the best offenses in baseball. If he can push it all back for one more night, both his life and baseball will be changed forever.