Josh Tomlin hides his face before he throws a pitch. He brings his glove right up to the bridge of his nose, so that only his eyes remain visible between the pulled-down cap above and the fanned-out leather below. There are three ways to read the posture. The first and most familiar to sports fans is an old-West-type declaration of malice: he is a gunslinger about to draw, the glove an anonymizing and fear-inducing bandana. The second is as an admission of discomfort and worry, the sinking down in the chair of a shy student afraid of being called on. The third is some combination of both, and is probably closest to the truth.
On Monday evening, Tomlin pitched five-plus innings and allowed two earned runs as the Cleveland Indians beat the Boston Red Sox to advance to the American League Championship Series. Even if you watched that game, it is possible you don’t really remember Tomlin’s part in it. For one thing, much of the main action came after his exit: the Red Sox pressing hard for the tying runs, Cleveland’s vaunted and well-deployed bullpen turning them back inning after inning. For another, Tomlin is the sort of pitcher almost definitionally incapable of being a big game’s key figure. He stands just over six feet tall, with a scruffy beard, a tangle of neck-length hair, and a wad in his lower lip. Nearing 32 years old, he still has the too-skinny look of a teenager to him. He throws his slow fastball and okay offspeed pitches with world-class precision, a combination that results in middle-of-the-road statistics. He rarely walks anybody; he gives up loads of homers.
Tomlin started Monday’s game only because two of Cleveland’s three best pitchers, Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, had gotten hurt down the stretch of the regular season, and he was mostly a footnote by the end of the night. The story of the Tribe’s advance to the ALCS centers on bullpen ace Andrew Miller and manager Terry Francona’s forward-thinking use of him, on the do-everything infield trio of Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramirez, and on the cruising-speed excellence of Corey Kluber. Tomlin wasn’t the team’s standout performer, nor will he be its most important going forward. Watching him keep the famous Boston bats mostly quiet for a few frames, though, offered a recognizably human counterpoint to the otherworldly norms of October baseball.
Except for the pre-pitch stare, Tomlin works casually, as if he got so good at placing baseballs exactly where he wants them simply because practice never felt like practice to him. You can picture him as a kid in his hometown—it’s Tyler, Texas, perfectly—pinging four-seamers into some seam in his house’s siding and dropping curves into metal buckets at dusk. He does not seem like the type of peripheral big-leaguer who reached his dream by way of a desire, adopted early and stoked constantly, to wring everything he could from average talent. Rather, he gives off the vibe of someone who made peace with his limitations and decided to pursue baseball anyway almost as a lark, seeing how far it would take him, expecting the road to run out well before the majors.
It didn’t, and so there he was on Monday pitching to 2016’s most potent offense: Dustin Pedroia, Mookie Betts, David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Xander Bogaerts. On television, the announcers talked about Tomlin’s remarkably low swing-and-miss percentage and Ortiz’s penchant, of late, for thwacking his offerings over the wall. They also talked about the adjustments Tomlin would have to make and the extra care he would have to take, which was laughable. Tomlin can pitch only one way, so he did that.
Tomlin’s fastball went wire-straight catcher Roberto Perez’s glove. His lumpy little curve ended up at hitters’ knees, his changeup just a touch below. A curveball coaxed a double play from the red-hot rookie Andrew Benintendi to end one inning, and a cutter on Ortiz’s hands got the retiring slugger to yank a ground ball to first base to end another. At one point between those pitches, Tomlin struck out three of four Red Sox, all of them looking, with sequences that brought to mind a boxer’s rehearsed pad training. Hard in, soft away, up, down, and then comfortably on the corner, hittable but for the batters’ crisscrossed eyes.
The best players’ best nights are unmistakable. They hit three homers or strike out 12, directing every aspect of the game. But Tomlin was at his best in the clincher against Boston, even when he gave up hits—maybe especially then. He is incapable of dominating at this level; he has to make due with nudging the odds in his favor as best he can, wherever there is room to do so. When a Boston batter reached on a sharp hit, Tomlin got the ball back and convinced himself to do the same thing again, with no assurance at all that it would work out. Where some athletes can get by on pure confidence—I knew I had my good stuff tonight—Tomlin requires hope. He did what he could and kept his pitches low. The Red Sox hit them softly more often than not.
Tomlin surrendered a single to start the sixth, and Francona came and got him. “Josh did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Francona would say after the game. What he was supposed to do was last for a while and turn things over to the more heroically inclined, pitch well enough to be forgotten about. He pulled it off.