CLEVELAND -- Josh Tomlin has been searching for answers and some semblance of his former self for more than a month. On Thursday, for at least one night, the Indians starter found something, and pitched superbly in a win over the Rays.
Cleveland's bats were not able to offer much in the way of support, but that was fine by Tomlin in a 3-1 victory at Progressive Field. The right-hander did what he does best: keeping the traffic to minimum, pounding the strike zone and handing the ball off to the late-inning stoppers.
"Back in the friendly confines of Progressive Field," Indians setup man Vinnie Pestano said, "you saw the real Josh Tomlin, and what he's capable of here. I'm excited for him. Hopefully this is just a stepping stone to more starts of his to come."
After Tomlin spun seven stellar innings, limiting the Rays to two hits along the way, Pestano and closer Chris Perez slammed the door on a potential Tampa Bay rally. Pestano worked the eighth inning, Perez handled the ninth and Cleveland (43-39) picked up its sixth win in the past eight games.
The Indians used a trio of home runs to provide Tomlin with his slim cushion. Shin-Soo Choo opened the first inning with a blast -- the ninth of the season for the right fielder -- to right off Rays righty Jeremy Hellickson (4-5). Michael Brantley added a one-out, solo shot off Hellickson to push the Tribe to a 2-0 lead in the second.
Travis Hafner added a towering solo home run to right field off Rays lefty Jake McGee in the eighth inning.
That was all the help Tomlin needed in order to collect the win.
"Tomlin did a fantastic job," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "That's the only way you can beat those guys, is out-pitching them. Their pitching is so good that, even when [Hellickson] didn't have his best command, he only allowed two runs on two homers.
"Tomlin did a pretty good job of controlling the at-bats the whole game."
Tomlin (5-5) finished with no walks and three strikeouts in an 88-pitch effort against the Rays (43-40) that the Tribe can only hope is the beginning of a season upswing for the pitcher. He surrendered just one single to the first 14 hitters he faced before running into his only major obstacle in the fifth inning.
With one out, Will Rhymes sent an offering from Tomlin deep to right, where it caromed high off the wall and ricocheted back into the outfield. Choo chased down the ball after missing on a leaping attempt to reel it in, but Rhymes wound up with a triple. Jose Molina then used a groundout to bring Rhymes home for Tampa Bay's only run.
"I felt like the command was there today," Tomlin said. "It feels good. It feels good to contribute and it feels good to give your team a chance to win. If I can go that deep in the game, and give it to a bullpen like that, then we have a chance to win."
Tomlin featured a sharp curveball and a fastball that lit up the radar gun a little more than usual early on in his outing. His changeup -- a pitch that has come and gone throughout this trying season -- also helped keep Tampa Bay's hitters guessing.
It was a frustrating night for a Rays club that has labored to produce runs of late.
"He's a pitcher. He pitches well," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "You cannot cooperate with him. You've got to make him come over the plate. And whenever he did, it appeared from the side, he was coming over the edges.
"He was sharp. And then again, probably knowing that we have not been too prodigious offensively, he may have had a little more confidence."
The Rays tried to rally against Pestano in the eighth, when Elliot Johnson sliced a one-out pitch down the left-field line. Left fielder Aaron Cunningham (a defensive replacement for Johnny Damon) retrieved the ball and rifled a throw to second base, where Johnson was tagged out to halt any potential momentum.
"That was huge," Pestano said. "To come up firing and doing that, it was a great play."
Cunningham's effort helped Pestano escaped unscathed and Perez followed suit in the ninth for his 24th save. That late-inning relief duo has been a big reason for Cleveland's 36-1 mark when leading after seven innings.
"When they come in," Tomlin said, "the game is pretty much over with."
For Tomlin, it was a step in the right direction after a slew of subpar showings. Prior to Thursday, hitters had posted a .331 average and Tomlin had posted a 6.93 ERA over his previous seven starts. In his previous two appearances, the right-hander had given up 11 runs on 13 hits in just nine innings of work.
Tomlin (12-7 with a 4.25 ERA in 2011) can't explain this season's struggles, but he is hoping some answers can be found within his latest performance.
"I don't know what it is. I honest to God don't," Tomlin said. "The inconsistency this year for me has been the biggest disappointment. Last year, I felt like I could go out there every start and figure out a way to pitch deep into the game. That hasn't happened as much this year.
"Hopefully I can pick it up from here, and hopefully this continues for the rest of the season."