Texas Rangers

Closer role not pressure cooker for Rangers’ Shawn Tolleson

Jeff Banister breaks down the reason for Shawn Tolleson's success

Shawn Tolleson thrived as the Rangers' closer in 2015 because he threw strikes and commanded all his pitches, says manager Jeff Banister (video by Jeff Wilson).
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Shawn Tolleson thrived as the Rangers' closer in 2015 because he threw strikes and commanded all his pitches, says manager Jeff Banister (video by Jeff Wilson).

The fastballs of four members of the Texas Rangers’ bullpen will consistently exceed 95 mph, and three of them will push triple digits.

They have the power arms that the Rangers haven’t had since Neftali Feliz was saving games during the World Series years, but Feliz was the only one to consistently test a radar gun’s limits.

But neither of that quartet, nor a pitcher who saved 41 games last season in Japan, entered spring training as the Rangers’ last line of bullpen defense.

Shawn Tolleson is the closer, the incumbent after saving the Rangers’ bullpen in 2015 and earning the vote from local baseball writers as the Rangers Pitcher of the Year.

Shawn Tolleson, who had a back spasm earlier this month, pitched Tuesday in a minor-league game (video by Jeff Wilson).

He’s not exactly a soft-tossing right-hander. He’s thrown 95 mph before, but usually is a couple ticks slower.

He’s not the high-intensity closer, the ones who snarl at hitters and pump their fists after every save.

For a year Tolleson was incredibly effective being what he is, a command pitcher who mixes speeds and gets outs with all his pitches.

And the pressure of having the weight of a game’s outcome resting on his shoulders? What pressure?

There are plenty of instances where guys are put in situations where the game is on their shoulders. I’m guessing for the most part they don’t view it like that. You have to think about it the same way if it’s the last inning, too.

Rangers closer Shawn Tolleson

“It’s like that for everyone at some point in the game, right?” Tolleson said. “I guess it’s not my mindset. It’s not how I approach the situation.

“Throughout the course of a game, there are plenty of instances where guys are put in situations where the game is on their shoulders. I’m guessing for the most part they don’t view it like that. You have to think about it the same way if it’s the last inning, too.”

Tolleson pitched in a game Tuesday for the first time since the intrasquad game more than two weeks ago. Back spasms bit him March 3, and the Rangers have played it safe with him.

He allowed one run, a homer to the first batter he faced, in an inning against Los Angeles Dodgers’ A-ball players. He struck out two and needed only 12 pitches to navigate the inning.

More importantly, he didn’t have any issues with his back.

It was just another outing for Tolleson, a native Texan who went to Allen High School and Baylor. That’s all it was, just like any save opportunity or tight spot he faced last season.

And there were some interesting outings, like the two innings he threw in August at Seattle. He intentionally walked Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano back to back to load the bases and move the winning run to third base in the 10th inning, wiggled out of the jam, and worked the 11th after the Rangers had scored eight times.

0 Career saves for Shawn Tolleson entering 2015. He finished with 35.

Tolleson was also on the mound with a 10-6 lead in Game 161 with the Rangers three outs away from clinching the AL West. Pitching for a fifth straight day, he allowed back-to-back homers to start the inning, and the Los Angeles Angels rallied to an improbable win after he exited.

Tolleson wasn’t the closer for Game 1 of the AL Division Series. The hard-throwing Sam Dyson was.

Through it all, Tolleson said that he hasn’t thought much about how the experiences of 2015 will make him a better closer in 2016. He knows he’s not going to match Dyson, Jake Diekman, Keone Kela or Tom Wilhelmsen with velocity.

Tolleson is just going to be himself.

“If I gave you an answer, it would just be something I was making up,” said Tolleson, who saved 35 games after assuming the closer’s job in May. “I haven’t thought about it. I don’t plan to do anything different. I don’t know. There’s really not too much material there.”

Cole Hamels offered some material. Having been in Philadelphia Phillies teams with high-octane closers such as Jonathan Papelbon, Billy Wagner and even Tom Gordon at times, Hamels pegged Tolleson as being much more like Brad Lidge.

Mild-mannered. Excellent person and teammate. Winner.

“Brad Lidge was very intelligent, nicest guy on the field and off the field, a good family guy,” Hamels said. “But when it mattered and he got into the game, he wanted to win and he went all out. That’s what Tolly reminds me of. When he gets on that mound, he wants to finish the game.”

Sam Dyson and Ross Ohlendorf recorded saves in the first two games of the American League Division Series, not closer Shawn Tolleson. Tolleson, though, didn’t allow a run in three innings against Toronto.

The Rangers have no concerns about Tolleson’s availability for the regular season. He was slowed last spring by forearm tightness and made only a handful of appearances late in camp, but was ready to go on Opening Day.

The back issue is relatively mild and hasn’t been nearly as limiting.

“I pitched in an intrasquad game before games started, I’ve thrown two live BPs, three or four bullpens,” Tolleson said. “I’ve done a lot.”

Naturally, he’s not worried about it either. He doesn’t seem to be worried about much of anything, including constantly pitching with a game on the line.

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