CLEVELAND - Brett Tomko reminds Ray Knight of the young Dwight Gooden. He reminds Don Gullett of the young Don Gullett.
''I have a special feeling for a young guy like that,'' the Cincinnati Reds pitching coach said of his prodigious protege. ''When he goes out there, he doesn't get flustered. He expects to do well. He's not a fish out of water. He belongs.''
Four major-league starts do not a career make, but Brett Tomko is quickly establishing himself as a pitcher with staying power. He threw 7 1/3 shutout innings Monday night in the Reds' 4-1 interleague victory over the Cleveland Indians, improving his record to 3-1 and reducing his ERA to 1.37. (The operative adjective here is ''microscopic.'')
Two years from A to bigs
At 24, less than two years removed from Class-A ball, Tomko is not nearly a finished product, and yet already advanced. He has figured out the most basic and elusive fundamental of his craft: that a precise fastball makes a firm foundation.
''He's got the No. 1 thing down,'' Gullett said Monday at Jacobs Field. ''He throws his fastball for a strike and uses both sides of the plate. He has that release that a lot of guys struggle to find. You see a lot of guys with great arms go ball one, ball two. If you can't get ahead of the hitters, they're going to hit you.''
It's that simple sometimes. Plenty of young pitchers can light up the radar guns, but they're not so good with the compass. They can't hit the corners of the plate consistently, so they throw too many pitches to too many hitters in a familiar cycle of self-destruction. They fall behind in the count, walk runners they should stifle, and then they throw something a little too straight to someone a little too strong. Their growing pains give managers migraines.
Tomko, by contrast, gives Ray Knight favorable flashbacks. The Reds manager sees in his rookie right-hander the poise and fire of the young Gooden, the delivery of Tom Seaver, the essential ingredients of an ace. Tomko reminds Gullett of his old self, the 19-year-old kid with the grown-up game.
''I think he's the real thing,'' Knight said. ''I think he's a guy, based upon what I've seen, who can win 20 games.''
What Knight has seen so far is a young pitcher who typically throws his first pitch across the plate, and fewer than 15 pitches per inning. Tomko threw 114 pitches Monday night - 75 of them strikes - and would have allowed no Indians as far as third base had Willie Greene caught a fly ball that glanced off his glove in the sixth inning.
''I struggled (with location) the first three starts,'' Tomko said. ''I think I was a little too fine. It's a lot easier to pitch when you're one strike ahead. It played a big part in today's game.''
Location, location, location
It is a rare pitcher - a Roger Clemens, a Randy Johnson - who can make a living overpowering professional hitters. Most succeed by hitting spots. Seaver liked to say there were three elements to every pitch - location, movement and velocity - and that the least important of them was velocity.
Tomko's fastball has been clocked at 96 miles per hour, yet it is his command that makes him so successful. He struck out 60 hitters in Indianapolis this season, against just nine walks. He was so efficient with his fastball, in fact, that the Reds urged him to throw more off-speed stuff for the sake of variety. They thought he could make it as a two-pitch pitcher, but that he might dominate with three.
''To be the type of pitcher he can be, and be successful, he needs three speeds,'' Gullett said. ''It's just a matter of him getting the confidence in the curve ball and the changeup, and I see no reason why he can't. We want to get him to throw curve balls in fastball situations. Once he gets to that point, then he's there.''
Where he is now is a pretty nice place.
''He looks as good as any young pitcher I've seen,'' Knight said. ''I don't know what people are going to do as far as adjusting the second time around, but people have had a tough time adjusting to his fastball (so far). He looks like he can be a guy who can be a staff leader.''
Looks can be deceiving. Results, however, are reassuring. Brett Tomko's start gives the Reds reason to believe.
REDS 4, INDIANS 1
LARKIN GOES OUT WITH CALF INJURY
8 COLOR PHOTOS
BOX SCORE, RUNS
NOTEBOOK: SORE ELBOW HAS BURBA OUT OF CONTROL