Slowly but surely, Shawn Tolleson is proving that he has staying power in the Dodgers bullpen.
The right-hander from Baylor began last season with the Class A Great Lakes Loons, but in 14 months had excelled at four minor league levels, and he made his major league debut on June 7 in Philadelphia. Tolleson was called on to pitch with the Dodgers up 8-3 in the ninth inning, the game fairly in hand.
But he walked the first two hitters he faced, on just 10 pitches, and was removed from the game.
Tolleson was relegated to mop-up duty for most of his first month in the big leagues, and through his first six appearances he had a 7.71 ERA, with 12 baserunners allowed and 14 outs recorded, with four strikeouts.
But since the beginning of July, Tolleson has turned things around. In his last 12 appearances, he has a 2.13 ERA with 11 strikeouts and four walks in 12 2/3 innings. Opposing hitters during that span have hit just .143/.234/.262 against Tolleson. His batting average on balls in play is just .167 since the start of July, but part of that might have to do with absurdly low six percent line drive rate (National League average is 19%).
"The only thing I've done differently is just work the strike zone more consistently. It came down to getting ahead in counts," Tolleson said. "When I get strike one and get ahead, I'm able to use my off speed. It's a lot easier to get outs that way."
Getting outs is something Tolleson has done in bunches ever since signing with the Dodgers after getting drafted in 2010. In roughly two calendar years in the minors, Tolleson had a 1.35 ERA with 178 strikeouts and just 28 walks in 120 innings. How was he able to carve his way through the farm system so quickly?
"Really it's just my desire and love for the game. I have a blast playing it," Tolleson said. "I love being in the clubhouse. My love for the game drives my work ethic. You put in the work, you can get results."
He was doing so well in Double A Chattanooga, with a 1.38 ERA in 11 games as the closer, that he was promoted to Triple A.
"It's time for another challenge. It was not much of a challenge for him in the Southern League," said Dodgers head of player development De Jon Watson back in May.
Tolleson was excited about the opportunity and the challenge of pitching in the hitters paradise that is the Pacific Coast League. And the more experienced batters helped him.
"I just focused on making pitches. I didn't change a whole lot from what I had done at other levels," Tolleson said. "As far as the transition from Double A to Triple A, I think the Triple A hitters were definitely more advanced and had a better approach. They had a better idea of what they were trying to do. I think the time I sepnt in Triple A helped prepare me for here."
Tolleson has still mostly pitched in lower leverage situations, but he has pitched in a few close games, including pitching a scoreless ninth inning in a tie game on July 27 in San Francisco/ Tolleson earned his first major league win when Hanley Ramirez homered in the 10th inning. As his responsibilities increase, Tolleson still keeps the same mindset.
"I'm just trying to make pitches and throw the ball where I want to, so I don't approach it any differently," he said. "If you take care of what you're trying to do out there and make a good pitch you're going to get the hitter out."
Tolleson did allow a pair of inherited runners to score on Tuesday, turning a one-run deficit into a three-run hole, but Tolleson had stranded all nine of his inherited runners before that.
The Dodgers have optioned Tolleson back to Triple A twice but both times he returned the next day due to another injured player. He understands that it's simply a part of the game.
"In this game you have to always be prepared for anything. I never got too down about it. I always want to be ready whenever they call my name," Tolleson said. "I was extremely excited to get that call the next day."
Tolleson might be optioned next week whenever Scott Elbert gets activated from the disabled list, but a September return for the right-hander is virtually guaranteed. If Tolleson keeps pitching like he has been pitching, he will be an important part of the Dodgers' future, if not the present.