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Return to Tribe's rotation satisfying for Tomlin

After working back from Tommy John surgery, right-hander happy to contribute

TORONTO -- Josh Tomlin traveled a path from solitude to celebration last year. He smirks a little while discussing his return to the Indians' starting rotation, happy that the road back to the big leagues is in his rearview mirror.

As Tomlin scanned the visitors' clubhouse at Tropicana Field this weekend, he was looking at exactly what was missing for him last year. A group of teammates at a table playing cards. One toying around with the stereo. Others coming and going as they worked through their pregame routines. The hum of conversation and bursts of laughter.

When Spring Training ended last season, Tomlin was left with silence.

"It was miserable," he said.

At this point last year, Tomlin was in the early rehab stages of a comeback from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. The injury tormented his 2012 season and turned him into an afterthought throughout the Tribe's run to the postseason in '13. Last week, the right-hander rejoined the rotation and issued a reminder of the kind of pitcher he was in '11.

Two starts in, Tomlin has helped strengthen a starting staff that weathered inconsistencies in April before hitting its stride early in May. It's hardly a big enough sample size to project what is to come, but two wins in two starts can go a long way for a pitcher in Tomlin's situation.

"That can be really uplifting," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "It's like, 'OK, I remember how to do this. I remember how to win here.'"

Tomlin beat the Twins on Tuesday behind 6 2/3 strong innings, earning his first Major League win since July 5, 2012. On Sunday, he turned in six solid innings against the Rays, getting by without his best stuff but earning another victory. It marked the first time since May 16-21, 2011, that Tomlin logged at least six innings in consecutive wins and gave up no more than three runs combined.

Tomlin's showing has been a continuation of the success he had with Triple-A Columbus to begin this season. After nearly earning a rotation spot in Spring Training, he took his trip to the Minors in stride, spun a 2.06 ERA in five starts and headed to Cleveland on the heels of 20 straight shutout innings.

"He had a chance to build himself up," Callaway said. "He was able to go out and have an eight-inning outing, a nine-inning outing and came up here with great confidence. He was doing all the right things, so we knew it was time for him to come up."

As has become a familiar tale for many pitchers around baseball, getting to that point was trying for Tomlin.

A Spring Training clubhouse is more alive with activity than a big league clubhouse in the heart of the regular season. The room is initially packed with more than five dozen players who are reuniting after the long offseason. After undergoing elbow surgery in August 2012, Tomlin welcomed the chance to reconnect in February and March last year.

Lockers are cleaned out as the roster is reduced. When the Indians head north to start the season, the team's complex in Goodyear, Ariz., becomes a ghost town. Among the many empty stalls with nameplates removed, a couple might remain for rehabbing pitchers.

"Everything else is empty," Tomlin said. "Everything's gone. All that activity, and then all of a sudden, it's gone. There's nothing you can do about it. It's, 'I know I'm going to be here for at least another four months, and this is what I have to look forward to.'

"I get to come in here at 10 [in the morning] and see no one. Then I have to get amped up to go play catch at 60 feet or 90 feet or 120 feet. And then, you go home at 12:30 and wait until the Tribe comes on. That was basically the routine."

Watching Indians games was a highlight of those long days for Tomlin, who had fellow pitcher Frank Herrmann there also rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Herrmann was signed by Cleveland as a non-drafted free agent out of Harvard in 2005, and Tomlin was selected by the club in the 19th round of the '06 First-Year Player Draft.

The pair of righties came up through the system together, endured some rough seasons in the Majors and were on the comeback trail side by side. They looked forward to each Tribe game, but the team's success last summer was bittersweet.

"You're not around the guys," said Tomlin, who went 12-7 with a 4.25 ERA for the Indians in 2011. "You're not in the clubhouse. You're not in the heat of the moment in the game atmosphere with them. There's just nothing fun about it."

Tomlin -- a native of Whitehouse, Texas -- was allowed to visit during the Tribe's three-game series against the Rangers in Arlington in June. For three days, he had a locker and got to catch up with teammates.

"Those were the best three days of my year," he said.

One month later, Tomlin began a Minor League rehab assignment. The right-hander worked in 27 1/3 innings in 10 games across four levels before Indians manager Terry Francona included Tomlin in September callups. On Sept. 12, Tomlin worked two scoreless innings against the White Sox for his first action back in the bigs.

"Before I got here, I had heard all the stories about what kind of teammate he was," Francona said. "I got to see it firsthand."

Tomlin appreciated every second.

"Tito doesn't know me from Adam," Tomlin said, "and he lets me come up there in September and lets me get those two innings under my belt. He lets me stay there and gets to know me a little bit. Then he lets me stay and watch the playoff game with them. I respected that a lot."

Before the American League Wild Card Game -- Cleveland's first playoff contest since nearly reaching the World Series in 2007 -- Tomlin was part of the clinching party in Minnesota. When the final out was recorded in the final game of the regular season, punching the Tribe's postseason ticket, Tomlin sprinted out of the bullpen at Target Field with the rest of the relievers.

In six months, Tomlin went from working alone to being soaked in champagne with his teammates.

"That was probably one of the best moments of my career," Tomlin said. "I was celebrating, but it was more a celebration for the guys, for the hard work and how they busted their tails to get there."

Tomlin's persistence led him back to the Indians' rotation this year.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.
Read More: Cleveland Indians, Josh Tomlin