By KIRBY ARNOLD
NEW YORK — Brett Tomko has been a starting pitcher, a relief pitcher and a Class AAA pitcher for the Seattle Mariners, all in one roller coaster ride of a season.
This week, he’s the most underappreciated, but perhaps the most vital, bridge to the World Series for the Mariners.
As a long relief specialist, it’s Tomko’s job to take over for a starting pitcher who falters early in the game, then hold the opposition down until the Mariners’ late-inning relief artists — Jose Mesa, Jose Paniagua, Arthur Rhodes and Kazuhiro Sasaki — can finish the job.
Pitching coach Bryan Price can’t find enough compliments for the job Tomko has done, especially in his adjustment from starting to long relief.
"The very best thing to happen to him was to go out and throw four scoreless innings against Boston in that 19-inning game," Price said. "He felt the rewards and the importance of that role. Sometimes when you throw two innings of a game that you win or lose 8-3, you don’t feel like you contributed a whole lot. Everyone wants to feel like they contributed."
As well as the entire relief staff pitched last week in the three-game sweep of Chicago, Tomko’s heroic performance in Game 1 set a solid tone.
He relieved Freddy Garcia one out into the fourth inning with the bases loaded, and he got out of the jam without allowing a run. He worked two more scoreless innings in an outing that he considered the highlight of his career.
"I didn’t realize it until after the game," he said. "I tried to stay relaxed and not think about it being the playoffs. Then afterward I was thinking about it being this chance that I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid.
"Bases loaded. It wasn’t the World Series, but it’s the closest I’ve ever been."
Tomko is loving this ride with the Mariners, although it’s been a supreme struggle to adjust from starting to relieving. He even had to learn to warm up differently.
"The first time we got him up in the bullpen it took him, like, 2 hours and 45 minutes before they called back and said he’s ready," Price said. "I’m exaggerating, but it took him a long, long time. He was going through his starter’s routine."
Tomko had battled ankle problems in spring training, then shoulder tendinitis in May that landed him on the disabled list.
"I was thrown into a role that I didn’t know anything about," Tomko said. "I was injured, then I started, then I was DL’d, then in the bullpen. Everything was thrown at me and I just tried to take it all in stride."
Price said he fit perfectly with other Mariners relievers because many of them had made changes in their roles.
"You look at Arthur Rhodes, who was used in every role down there last year in Baltimore," Price said. "Jose Mesa went from closer to anywhere from middle to setup.
The difference for Brett is that he never saw himself as a reliever. The other part of his role is that he can go a week without throwing. If we go through a nice stretch with our starters, Brett might not even get up for a week."
Tomko never goes more than two days without throwing 25-30 pitches in the bullpen, and that keeps him ready to burn up innings — and burn down rallies.
"He looks forward to it, and that’s what thrills me," Price said. "I love it when guys come here and they want to work."
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