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Herrmann optimistic despite rocky outing

Reliever's Wednesday appearance was first since Tommy John surgery

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Frank Herrmann is hoping momentum has a lengthy shelf life.

The Indians reliever is quick to point out that he hasn't given up a Major League hit in about a year and a half. Technically he's right, which makes for a pretty good streak.

But there's one small detail that must be noted: Herrmann can boast that streak because in that time he hadn't faced a hitter until Wednesday, when he made his 2014 Cactus League debut. He's spent the last year working back from Tommy John surgery for a UCL tear in his right elbow, which was suffered exactly one year ago Thursday.

His first step forward was rocky, but could still be counted as an encouragement. He faced seven Padres hitters -- with just 19 games of Major League experience between them -- and surrendered three runs on four hits, including a home run. He did strike out a batter.

"It was a big step for him, being back and it's been almost a year," manager Terry Francona said. "I think he's just a couple days short of a year and he left some balls over the middle of the plate, but that's a huge step for him. Now he's going to start pitching in games, as opposed to rehabbing, and the more he pitches, the better he'll be."

The hope is that Herrmann can not only earn a spot in Cleveland's Opening Day bullpen, but that he can carry over the success he was having when he last pitched in the Majors. That was the end of the 2012 season, when he ended the year without allowing a run in his final eight games, a career-best stretch.

"When you don't give up a hit in over a year, you're working hard and doing mental reps and stuff like that, and you expect a lot out of yourself," Herrmann said. "But you also have to be realistic and say, 'I'm trying to get back to pitching at the highest level of my profession and I'm going to need to fine-tune some things. You also have to be patient and work hard and continue to expect a lot out of yourself, but at the same time you're not going to be perfect and it's going take some time to knock that rust off."

That process of helping Herrmann do so can officially begin now for the Indians, who have plenty of experience in keeping pitchers on the right path after Tommy John surgery. Teammates Josh Tomlin, John Axford, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Outman and Vinnie Pestano are among them. Outman, Pestano and Herrmann have lockers in the Goodyear clubhouse next to one another, and Herrmann said he also leaned on former Indians reliever Rich Hill about the operation and the comeback.

Herrmann -- a Harvard graduate -- would throw with Hill -- a Milton, Mass., native -- during the offseason, and the two were locker partners last year. Herrmann also lived with Tomlin last summer when Tomlin was working his way back from injury, and was never afraid to ask questions about rehab, soreness or his program.

"If he ever needed to say, 'Hey, I'm feeling this. Is this normal?' He's got somebody to call and that's a big help for guys," fellow reliever Scott Atchison said. "And I'm sure he's been looking forward to this day for a year now."

Herrmann, who has spent his entire four-year career with the Cleveland franchise that signed him in 2009, made his 2012 debut on Aug. 7 and went on to scatter five earned runs over 19 1/3 innings spanning 15 outings. This bit of resurgence came after disappointing 2010 and 2011 seasons, when he combined for a 4.63 ERA.

He attributes this largely to his development of a curveball to go along with his fastball and split-change. As he's thrown primarily fastball bullpens for the last two months, he feels his heater is as strong as ever and his curveball is "right where [he] left it."

"Right now, I feel tremendous in the bullpen, but it's different when you get in a game," Herrmann said. "I don't care of it's a regular-season game or a Spring Training game. There's an emotion there, an intensity there and you want to see the pitches so maybe you're not seeing things as much if you're to overthrow, so maybe you're flying open a little. I understand that. I know I'm not going to be perfect but I'm going to give myself some time to get gradually into shape."

Perhaps it's because the Indians have seen so many pitchers come back successfully from such an operation that Francona was so easily able to shake off the early rust he saw from Herrmann. Chances are some teammates shared the same thought.

"You just gotta find that you want to get through it healthy and take that and then progress through the rest of the steps," said Atchison, who had major shoulder surgery in college and has dealt with his own elbow issues in the past. "I don't think anybody's judging you on this first outing. Let's just get him out there so he can get that first initial hurdle."

Joey Nowak is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak.

Cleveland Indians, Frank Herrmann