Back in high school, reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw
played on Dallas-area travel teams (and later the U.S. Junior National squad) with a strong right-hander named Shawn Tolleson
"He was probably the best high school pitcher in Texas, bar none," Kershaw told MLB.com's Ken Gurnick.
While Kershaw became the seventh overall pick in the 2006 Draft, Tolleson suffered a severe elbow injury in the first start of his senior year. It took two seasons to recover from the subsequent Tommy John surgery and, after an inconsistent college career as a starter at Baylor, the Dodgers made him their 30th-round pick in 2010.
Reporting to Rookie-level Ogden that summer, the 6-foot-2 Tolleson reinvented himself as a shutdown closer, posting a 0.63 ERA and 17 saves with 39 strikeouts and five walks over 28 2/3 innings.
Last year, he was even better, opening the campaign by allowing an unearned run and fanning 33 batters over 15 frames with Class A Great Lakes. A brief stop at Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga was similarly impressive, as Tolleson racked up 17 strikeouts while allowing two hits in 9 2/3 innings.
Tolleson concluded his season with 38 appearances at Double-A Chattanooga, where his numbers were still impressive, if more human: 4-2, 1.68 ERA, 12 saves and 55 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings.
Now 24, Tolleson is back on the fast track to the Majors -- MLB.com ranked him as the Dodgers' No. 9 prospect -- and could rejoin his old teammate at Chavez Ravine this year. MiLB.com spoke to him shortly after training camp opened in Arizona.
MiLB.com: How did you spend your offseason and when did you get back to camp?
Shawn Tolleson: I was at home in Dallas, mainly working on getting in better shape and keeping my arm strong. I got out here to Arizona on [Feb. 15] and camp started yesterday.
MiLB.com: You were primarily a starter at Baylor. What prompted the shift to the bullpen when you joined Ogden in 2010? Were you comfortable with the move?
Tolleson: It just sort of happened, but I was comfortable with it. When I got there, [the Raptors] already had five starters and they needed to stick me somewhere. After I threw well in middle relief, they made me the closer.
MiLB.com: How has your mentality and approach changed as you've adjusted to life in the bullpen? Your strikeout numbers have been remarkable -- do you find yourself going after strikeouts more as a closer?
Tolleson: I adjusted pretty quickly to it -- I stopped using my windup right away. The big difference is that I bring everything I have to the table from the first pitch. There's no holding back, and saving a certain pitch for the next time you go through the lineup. You're just trying to get your outs now, no matter what.
I don't really think about strikeouts too much, but as a starter you're looking to get early contact so you can go deeper into games. As a reliever, I'm not so worried about that, so if I get two strikes I'm definitely looking to put them away.
MiLB.com: You had a big setback after suffering an elbow injury in high school. Have you changed your mechanics at all to reduce stress?
Tolleson: My mechanics have changed a little but not because of the injury. When I went to college, I got a little more coaching about how to do things differently, and even more since turning pro. The Dodgers coaches have helped me get a little more velocity on my fastball.
MiLB.com: You've obviously been very effective with a mid-90s fastball and cutter. Have you been working on any other pitches?
Tolleson: Yeah, in the instructional league last fall I worked a lot on my changeup. When I got to Double-A last summer, it seemed like lefties were seeing my pitches better, so I'm trying to mix in the change to keep them off-balance.
MiLB.com: What other adjustments did you have to make as you jumped up two levels last season?
Tolleson: The hitters were much more advanced. With the left-handers, especially, I tried to go inside a lot to keep them off the plate, then mix in a sort of backdoor cutter.
MiLB.com: Do you think being friends with Kershaw had anything to do with the Dodgers drafting you?
Tolleson: I really don't know, but it may have. I told him to put in a good word with them for me.
MiLB.com: You were a little older than many of the players you faced last season. Do you think that extra experience was an advantage?
Tolleson: I think my experiences in college certainly helped, just having gone through having successes and having failures and learning from them both.
MiLB.com: Did you play any other sports when you were younger?
Tolleson: I played some basketball and football when I was little, but by the time I was a freshman in high school I started to concentrate on baseball.
MiLB.com: Growing up in Dallas, I assume you were a Rangers fan? Who were your favorite players?
Tolleson: Yeah, I liked the Rangers. Picking a pitcher is hard, but I guess Roger Clemens is the guy who stands out for me.