Thursday, May 27, 1999

Reds must solve riddle of Tomko




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Brett Tomko is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a headstrong young hurler. One day he's a Seaver. Next time out he's a sieve.

        Tomko is the most perplexing pitching talent the Cincinnati Reds have employed since the rise and fall of Jack Armstrong, a guy whose statistics continue to provide stark contrast to his stuff. He is an enigma in need of an explanation. And soon.

        “We need him,” Reds manager Jack McKeon said Wednesday afternoon. “If we're going to succeed, we need him. We need him to step up right now.”

        Denny Neagle is disabled. Jason Bere is a disaster. The Reds' starting rotation consists primarily of Pete Harnisch, Steve Avery and prayer. Steve Parris pitched brilliantly in beating the Dodgers on Tuesday night, but his pedigree does not suggest staying power.

        If the Reds are to make a serious run in the National League Central — or contend for a wild-card playoff spot — The Tomko Question is one that must be answered in the affirmative. The Reds need to know if this is a guy they can count on, or one who will continue to cause his coaches to count to 10.

        Wednesday was another night to waffle on The Tomko Question. He pitched five reassuring innings against the Dodgers, only to yield six runs in the sixth. He was charged with a career-high eight runs in L.A.'s 9-3 victory, but only three of them were earned. It was tough to tell whether to be encouraged or embarrassed or both.

Struggling, or stubborn?
        “I thought he pitched much better than his numbers,” McKeon said. “We should have made two or three plays in that (sixth) inning, and it didn't happen.”

        Reds third baseman Mark Lewis played the hot corner Wednesday night as if he had just emerged from a freezer, stiff-legged and scatter-armed. His defensive difficulties helped prolong the sixth inning, and then Tomko was unable to put an end to it. After holding the Dodgers to three hits over the first five innings, he allowed six hits in the space of eight batters.

        “I was cruising for a little bit,” Tomko said. “Then you look up and you've given up a six-spot. Even if it's not all my fault, you still feel responsible.”

        Much as McKeon wanted to win Wednesday's game, he was equally interested in Tomko's tendencies. He wants a Tomko who takes the mound with the mindset that hitters are trespassing on his home plate, a Tomko who breaks more bats and relies less heavily on the called strike on the outside corner.

        McKeon's formula provides no new insight, yet it is amazing how few young pitchers can follow it. Some of them outsmart themselves in trying to outsmart the hitters. Some of them lack the velocity or the control to pitch inside with confidence. Some of them are like Brett Tomko, chronically stubborn.

What to make of all this?
        Tomko fell into some familiar traps in the first inning Wednesday, allowing successive opposite-field hits by leaving the ball up and outside, but the two runs the Dodgers scored early would be their only meaningful offense until the sixth inning.

        Tomko retired 12 straight Dodgers at one stretch, walked no one all evening and moved the ball in and out masterfully. This was the same Tomko who stifled San Diego for 8 innings last week at Cinergy Field; the Tomko the Reds wish they could clone.

        “I felt pretty good,” he said. “I felt I was pretty much in control. I had some pretty good stuff. But the ball takes some funny bounces. Sometimes, it hasn't bounced my way.”

        The sixth-inning meltdown was only marginally Tomko's fault. Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park led off that inning with a routine hopper to third base, but Lewis threw wildly to put the go-ahead run on base. Devon White, trying to advance the runner, beat out a bunt single in front of the lumbering Lewis. Later, Sheffield followed with a smash between Lewis and the foul line that went for a double.

        “It kind of snowballed a little bit,” Tomko said.

        Before the inning was over, the Dodgers scored six times, sent 10 hitters to the plate, and altered the spin on Tomko's evening. He would leave the game for a pinch hitter, The Tomko Question unresolved.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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SULLIVAN ARCHIVE