Saturday, May 10, 1997
Tomko has heat, needs seasoning

The Cincinnati Enquirer

INDIANAPOLIS - Brett Tomko has stuff to spare. A fastball that has registered 96 miles per hour on the radar guns. A sharp, cruel curve.

What the Cincinnati Reds want to see from him now is range.

The best starting pitching prospect the Reds have had since who knows when struck out 12 Omaha Royals Thursday night. In 6ô innings. He walked no one, and allowed no runs. He defined dominance. He made a powerful case for promotion.

What he didn't do, not enough anyway, was throw changeups. This might seem a small oversight on an otherwise overpowering evening, but it may be all that separates Tomko from the major leagues. If the Reds have a quibble with the fireballing phenom of the Indianapolis Indians, it is that he needs to think more in terms of variety and less in terms of velocity.

Reds General Manager Jim Bowden traveled Thursday to Indianapolis specifically to see Tomko in action. He left convinced that he had seen the best pitching prospect in his eight seasons with the organization, one who needed only to expand his repertoire.

''He told me, 'I don't care if you give up 10 runs, I want you to throw more changeups,' '' Tomko said Friday afternoon. ''I told him I might throw 117 changeups, if that's what it takes.''

Under watchful eyes

For weeks now, Tomko has been monitoring the carnage at Cinergy Field and wondering whether it would hasten his big break. He was talking to his mother on the telephone when Bowden walked into the Indians clubhouse Thursday night. He hung up hurriedly, and could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He knew, without being told, that this was to be his showcase before the big boss of the big club.

''I'm sure there's no less pressure,'' Tomko said Friday, ''in the seventh game of the World Series.''

Tomko tried to concentrate on the hitters, but his eyes kept wandering to the executives behind home plate. Bowden and Brad Kullman, the Reds Assistant/Baseball Operations, clocked him consistently between 93 and 95 mph. A steady diet of smoke.

''It was the hardest we've seen him throw in person,'' Kullman said. ''He was throwing strikes, and he really threw his fastball where he wanted and had some curve balls where the hitters had no chance.''

When Tomko was summoned to manager Dave Miley's office afterward, he had cause to think it was to confirm his call-up. He was leading the American Association in strikeouts (46 in 44 innings) and had reduced his earned-run average to 2.45.

Yet even in their mounting desperation, the Reds remain reluctant to rush young pitchers. They have seen the damage this has done to the psyches of strong prospects, and they see no purpose in putting players on the major-league service time track toward free agency before they are fully prepared to perform.

Big break coming

Brett Tomko's time is near, but it won't be nudged.

''If you're asking for a timetable, I don't know,'' Miley said. ''But the kid's going to pitch in the big leagues ... He's got to throw the changeup more because up there, if 93 to 95 (mph) is all you have, they're going to hit that.''

Tomko says he has more to offer, that he has confidence in his changeup, but that his fastball has made it superfluous. Power pitchers are always told not to get beat with their second-best pitch, and some of them throw hard enough that they can make it in the minors almost exclusively on heat.

''I had no curve ball in high school or junior college,'' Tomko confessed. ''Up till last year, I never really had one. I finally got that to the point where I'm satisfied with it, and now I need to perfect another pitch.''

He was not complaining. He was sitting on a training table with an expression of undistilled excitement. He said he was prepared to wait a while longer to crack the big leagues because he wants the move to be permanent when it happens.

''It's hard not to see what's going on,'' he said. ''People talk. As a player, you don't even want to think about it. I'm here to get ready for that next step and until it's time for them to call me up, I've got no say in the matter.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.