Leader Blues

Friday, June 12, 2009

SPORTS >> Tolliver taken in fifth round

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Depending on how negotiations go over the next few days, the next phase of young Ashur Tolliver’s baseball career could begin as early as next week.

Tolliver, the fireballing lefthander out of Sylvan Hills, was drafted in the fifth round on Wednesday by the Baltimore Orioles.

“People were asking me, ‘Who do you want to get drafted by?’” said Tolliver, who just concluded a 10-1 season at Oklahoma City University. “I just told them whoever would get me the best opportunity and whoever appreciated my talent. I liked the
Cardinals growing up as a kid, but it really didn’t matter who took me.”

Assuming the Orioles and Tolliver and his agent, Darek Braunecker, can come to terms, the next step for Tolliver would be a stint at Aberdeen (Md.) in the New York-Penn Short Season League, which begins June 19. But Tolliver said that negotiations could take some time.

The news was not so good for fellow Sylvan Hills alum D.J. Baxendale, who was not drafted last week. That news came as a surprise to Denny Tipton, his high school coach.

“I try to stay out of that kind of stuff, but, yeah, I was shocked,” said Tipton, whose Bears won the 5A state title in 2008 with Baxendale anchoring the staff. “Numerous people had told me they wanted him. But he’s a very mature kid. I’ve talked to him and he’s doing fine.”

Baxendale, who has signed with the University of Arkansas, compiled an ERA of .30 this past season. Because of the rule that says a Division I signee must play through his junior year once he puts on a uniform, Tipton was pretty certain Baxendale would have opted to play pro ball if he’d been drafted high enough.

“He’s ready, no doubt about it,” Tipton said. “In high school, he was the best I ever had. I think he’ll be a main starter at the U of A next year. He’ll be a conference starter.”

Tolliver took a chance a year ago when he decided to transfer from Division I Arkansas-Little Rock to NAIA Oklahoma City University after Trojan head coach Jim Lawler announced his resignation at the end of the 2008 season. Lawler was the reason Tolliver chose UALR after posting an 18-2 record and an ERA of right around 1.00 over his final two seasons at Sylvan Hills.

“Coach Lawler was a pitching guy,” Tolliver said. “For a small pitcher who had some developing to do, he was a great guy for me.”

Tolliver struggled in his two seasons at UALR, posting an 8-10 record. His 4.45 ERA as a freshman ballooned to 7.94 in his junior season.

“He had a pretty good freshman year at UALR, but he got off to a bad start his sophomore year,” Tipton said. “He never felt comfortable, and for a pitcher, that’s especially important. And then UALR never gave him any run support so he was going out there thinking he had to shut people out.

“But he threw well at Cape Cod and got his groove back and got back in rhythm. It was the best decision he ever made (to go to OCU). It gave him a fresh start.”

Tolliver became aware of OCU’s successful baseball program both through Lawler, who was a friend of OCU assistant coach Keith Lytle, and via his teammates on the Harrisonburg Turks, the summer league club Tolliver played for after his freshman season at UALR.

Tolliver developed some good friendships with his fellow Turks, several of whom played college ball at OCU. They stayed in touch and convinced him to make the move. After a rough sophomore season and Lawler’s resignation, Tolliver made his decision.

“I knew I didn’t want to sit out a year which I would have had to do if I’d transferred (to another Division I school),” Tolliver said. “Coach Lawler talked to me about OCU and I knew they put up ridiculous numbers offensively and had really good records.”

Tolliver said going to an NAIA school might have cost him some of the exposure he was looking for, but OCU was not just any NAIA school. Lawler and Lytle convinced him that, scout-wise, there would be plenty of exposure for Tolliver. Five OCU Stars were drafted in 2007; six were taken in 2004.

Tolliver’s 10-1 record and his 89 strikeouts to 17 walks over 75 innings helped lead the Stars to the NAIA national semifinals and earned him a second-team All-America honor.

A starter his entire life, the 6-0, 170-pound Tolliver got his first taste of relief pitching in the Cape Cod League and says he really doesn’t care if he develops into a starter or a reliever in the minor leagues.

“I love coming in with first and second, no outs and the tying run on,” he admitted. “I enjoy the pressure situations. But I love starting games, too. I can’t really say I like one more than the other.”

A lot of where he ends up — as a starter or coming out of the bullpen — depends on the development of his other pitches.

He’s been clocked in the low- to mid-90s and says the fast ball, along with his changeup, have always been his go-to pitches.

“I need to keep working on my slider,” he said. “If I can really develop a strikeout slider, I could be effective as a reliever or I could develop as a four-pitch starter.”

Tipton said that, despite his diminutive size in high school, Tolliver could still bring it at 86 or 87 miles per hour. And he said Tolliver had a “major league changeup” and spot control.

After an expected stint in the Short Season League, Tolliver is likely be sent to Baltimore’s Class A South Atlantic Delmarva Shorebirds in Maryland.

Tolliver was not only the first NAIA player selected in the draft, he was the first Arkansan taken as well, going ahead of Razorbacks Dallas Keuchel, Stephen Richards and Scott Lyons.