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Brett Tomko was the Cincinnati Reds’ first selection (second
round, 54th pick overall) in the 1995 draft, out of Florida Southern
College. A quick climb up the minor-league ladder landed him in the Reds
rotation by late spring of 1997, where he fashioned an 11-7, 3.83 rookie
season.

After that auspicious debut, his situation deteriorated in Cincinnati and he
suffered the fate of having unflattering labels attached to him.
As part of
the bounty in the Ken Griffey, Jr. trade
, Tomko joined the Mariners
prior to the 2000 campaign, and played a vital role out of the bullpen and
as a spot starter in helping Seattle reach the American League Championship
Series. However, a slow start this season found Tomko down in Tacoma in by
mid-May, which is where we spoke to him prior to a recent game against the
Omaha Golden Spikes.

Baseball Prospectus: You were off to a rough start in the Mariners’
bullpen this year, and the trend continued for your first few starts with
Tacoma after you were sent down. However, over the past six or seven weeks,
you’ve been on a nice roll. What did you change that enabled you to return
to being an effective pitcher?

Brett Tomko: Up in Seattle, I wasn’t getting a whole lot of work.
When I got on the mound, I didn’t have anything. I couldn’t throw a fastball
where I wanted to throw it and I had no off-speed pitches at all.

When I got sent down here, they put me back into the rotation. Like you
said, my first three outings were rough. I really wasn’t in shape since 30
or 40 pitches were the most that I’d thrown up there, and the first time out
of the chute, I threw 100 pitches down here. It took me a while to get my
arm in shape, but once I started throwing bullpens again–two bullpens
between starts for about two-and-a-half weeks–everything started to come
around. I got in a routine, my arm strength began to build, and I started
getting a feel for my pitches again. That was a big thing: before, I didn’t
have a feel for anything because I wasn’t throwing that often. When you’re
not throwing often and you get in a crucial situation in a game, it’s tough
to find it.

I was battling a lot of things, not just going out there and pitching, but
you want to kind of beat the world when you do get the chance. I think I was
trying a little too hard.

But I came down here and got to become a starter again. I really wanted to
do that. I think I just needed consistent work, because after I got my arm
in shape, everything kind of clicked.

BP: You kind of burst on to the scene with the Reds in 1997, but
haven’t found the same success the past few seasons. How do you compare to
the pitcher that you were four years ago?

BT: In my mind, I’m throwing the ball better now than I ever have,
and I’m a smarter pitcher. Velocity-wise, it took me a while to build it up,
but last game I got it back up to where it was my first couple of years. I’ve
learned more about how to pitch. I’ve learned instead of trying to throw
the ball 94 or 95 every single time, that there’s nothing wrong with
throwing 91 or 92 on the corner or with some movement, and when I want to
get to 94 or 95, I can reach back and get there. I’ve become a better
pitcher working both sides of the plate and up and down.

My first couple of years, I just threw the ball as hard as I could throw it.
When I got up there, all I had was a fastball and a curveball; I didn’t have
any other pitches. I’ve got four pitches now, and am pretty much to the
point where I feel comfortable throwing them any time I want to throw them.
I couldn’t do that my first two years. I think I’m a smarter pitcher and I
have more weapons now.

BP: Both in 1999 and last year, you were sent to Triple-A for a
couple of starts. When you were sent down in mid-May this year, did you
anticipate the same thing? Are you surprised that you’ve been down here for
more than two months?

BT: With the Reds in 1999, I had an Achilles injury in the spring, so
it was more of a working my way back into shape.

When Seattle sent me down this time, it was a little bit different. I didn’t
expect it to be two-and-a-half months, but I took responsibility for it. I
wasn’t pitching well and I wasn’t getting the opportunity to pitch as much
as I would’ve liked to because the staff was doing such a good job. When the
starters are going six, seven, eight innings, you’re going to give it to
your horses, your set-up [men] and your closer. I understood what was going
on, and I wasn’t seizing the opportunity when I had the chance.

When I got sent down and they said they were going to make me a starter, I
looked at it as a blessing. Not that you want to be down here, but it was a
chance to get back and be a starter.

I think that when I started a few games last year, that there was a lot of
talk that I couldn’t do it any more, that I couldn’t go through the lineup
two or three times. I wanted to prove to myself, more than anything, that I
could do it because I kind of took that talk personally. I wanted to prove
people wrong, the ones who were saying, "You’re just not a starter, you
‘re a good middle guy." When I came down here, I took the attitude that
I’m going to prove a lot of people wrong and show them that I can throw
seven, eight, nine innings every time out.

BP: In the majors, you’ve had Don Gullett and Bryan Price as your
pitching coaches, both of whom are highly respected. How would you compare
the two?

BT: They’re definitely different.

Bryan is young and more "hands on" and "let’s sit down and
talk about it." He gets down there and catches you. If you want to play
catch and want to bring curveballs, he hops right down there and does it.

Gullett was a little bit different. He was a great pitcher; he had great
numbers and a great major-league career. Bryan didn’t make it to the major
leagues, but I think they’re both knowledgeable in that they know how to
pitch. Bryan may not have done it in the big leagues, but he had the idea of
how to do it. Gullett actually got to do it and was very successful.

One is young, one is older; they just have different perspectives on
different things. One is a little bit more "old school." Bryan
seems more hands-on than Don, but Don would sit there every day and say,
"try this, try that."

BP: I’ve heard good things about Rainiers’ pitching coach Chris
Bosio. What have you learned from him?

BT: Bosio is awesome. I said a while back that Seattle is real
fortunate because they have two big-league pitching coaches: Price up there
and Bosio here in Tacoma. I hope that Bosio gets a shot somewhere in the big
leagues sometime.

He’s helped me more with my mental approach than anything, to get back to
where I’m staying focused. That’s something that I kind of struggled with in
Cincinnati, inconsistency in keeping mentally focused the whole time you’re
out there. He’s been a good coach for that, keeping me locked in all the
time and to have the attitude that, "you’re not going to beat me, you’re
not going to get a hit off me."

When he pitched, he brought that attitude with him. If you looked at him
wrong, he would drill you right in the back. That’s the kind of attitude
you’ve got to have, you’ve got to be a little mad out there in a controlled
way. He’s helped me a lot with that.

Another thing with Bosio is that it has been nice to have a right-handed
pitching coach, because I’ve never had that. No matter how a left-hander
throws, it’s different. It’s been nice to have a right-handed pitching coach
say, "I used to work the game like this." That’s kind of clicked
with me.

BP: In the two years since it opened, Safeco Field has proven to be a
good pitchers’ park, and, historically, Cheney Stadium has been one of the
best pitchers’ parks in the Pacific Coast League. Announcers often say that
pitchers can pitch differently in that type of ballpark. Is that true? Do
you actually work differently in a park that you know is going to hold the
ball a little bit better?

BT: It’s true that you could pitch it differently, but I don’t think
anybody consciously does it because you don’t want to get out of your game
plan. Every pitcher has his strengths, and I don’t think you’d pitch away
from your strengths just because of the dimensions of the park because if a
guy hits the ball, it’s going to go out of here just as well as anywhere
else. So, I don’t think you change your philosophy at all.

BP: Over the years, there have been a number of different coaches and
managers who have questioned your toughness. Gullett and Jack McKeon made
comments about it while you were with the Reds. There was the incident last
spring training when Lou Piniella got upset because you didn’t throw at
somebody. What exactly do they mean when they talk about your lack of
"toughness?"

BT: I’m amazed at that.

I think we touched on it a little bit earlier when I said that Bosio has
really helped me to keep my focus the whole time I’m out there. I have a
tendency where I don’t know if I relax or if I back off a bit, but I’ll have
a rough inning where I walk a couple of guys and give up a couple of hits,
then all of a sudden it’s like "You weren’t tough." I think it got
highly misunderstood. When I say that I’m a better and smarter pitcher now,
it’s realizing that I need to keep that intensity.

They almost are challenging your manhood. Jack was from the old school and
we didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot things. I think a lot of people now kind
of see what I saw back then. I was being challenged personally, and probably
because of my youthfulness, I didn’t handle it the right way. He was from
the old school and was always like, "Let’s get tough out there." I
think "tough" was the wrong term to use. Maybe, "Let’s stay
focused for seven innings" would have been a better thing to say. I
mean, I pitched with broken ribs for five starts, getting shot up with
painkillers to go out there, so my toughness is there. I’m as intense as
anybody on the mound when I get the ball.

As far as the thing with Lou, it’s not that I didn’t try to hit [the
batter]. I missed him. I missed him with the first pitch and after the first
pitch they pretty much know what’s coming next. So, on the next pitch the
guy’s already out of the batter’s box. That happens, so I don’t think there’s
any bad blood there with Lou.

I don’t know why people said that earlier in my career. I never missed a
start, I had lots of aches and pains, and I was taking the ball every fifth
day and I was going to give you my best effort. So, I think I took it kind
of personal. I didn’t like it because I knew that I was tough out there and
I knew I was a gamer.

BP:
When the Mariners demoted you in mid-May,
you were quoted at the time as saying, "Why don’t they just get rid of
me?" Is it safe to assume that you still feel that way?

BT: Yes, definitely. The thing that I was told is that I had to go
down here and increase my value because I wasn’t pitching well. I came down
here with the right attitude. I didn’t pout. Well, I pouted for a couple of
days because I was a little bitter about the situation, but as soon as I got
down here I got after it. I think I’ve increased my stock, and that was the
big thing, increase your stock and we’ll see what we can do.

The Mariners pitching staff is deep. I’ve got the feeling now, after being
here for two-and-a-half months and being overlooked for promotions three or
four times, that I want to go somewhere and I want to pitch. It’s not that I
feel bitter about the situation, but I almost feel forgotten when four other
people get called up before me and I’ve been throwing the ball really well.

So, yes, I would like to go somewhere and pitch and contribute to some team.

BP: Do you think you’re going to get traded in the next few days?

BT: I would have said definitely, but you never know. I’d like to go
pitch, and I don’t see it happening with the Mariners anytime soon. So, I’ll
pitch here [Tacoma] on Sunday, if I don’t get traded by then. But if I am
gone, I going to go somewhere and I’m going to win with that team. That’s
the attitude I have. Wherever I go, I’m going to win.

Jeff Bower is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
clicking here.

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