Friday, May 27, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Perserverance pays for Ashur

Leader sports editor

Almost midnight Tuesday, after the Bowie Baysox had lost a 13-inning game in Connecticut, former Sylvan Hills pitcher Ashur Tolliver finally realized a lifelong dream. It had taken 11 years since leaving Arkansas and seven years toiling in the minor leagues. Tuesday night, his minor league manager told him, in front of the rest of his Double-A teammates, that he was being called up to the big leagues.

By the same time Wednesday, Tolliver was in a Baltimore Orioles uniform, under the bright lights of Minute Maid Park, a bona fide major leaguer.

Tolliver is a left-handed middle reliever who didn’t get to pitch his first two games as an Oriole, but he took the mound Thursday night against the Astros and made it a very solid MLB debut.

He took the mound to start the bottom of the sixth inning in relief of starter Kevin Gausman. Tolliver struck out left-handed hitter Colby Rasmus swinging, got right-hander Evan Gattis to ground out to shortstop, walked right-hander Tyler White and sat down lefty batter Luis Valbuena swinging. He came back out in the bottom of the seventh to face lefty switch hitter Marwin Gonzalez and got him looking before being replaced by Mychal Givens to face righty Jake Marisnik. He bounced a line drive over the fence in right field for a ground-rule double.

“Tolliver couldn’t be reached for comment, but his high school coach, Denny Tipton, isn’t surprised by Tolliver’s arrival, however late, in the major leagues.

“I really thought he could make it just because of his work ethic, his determination and his competitiveness,” said Tipton. “I don’t know if I ever saw a fastball of 93 to 96. He was throwing in the 82-86 range in high school. I knew he was still growing and was going to add velocity, but I’d be lying if I said I thought he’d be throwing that hard. But he’s such a competitor and he’s so determined, I felt like he really had what it takes.”

Tolliver was a dominant high school pitcher for the Bears, who signed with UALR out of high school. Larger schools started recruiting him late because he was so small for most of his high school career. He hit a growth spurt his senior year up to about 5-foot-10. He’s now 6-feet, 170 pounds with a fastball consistently about 93 miles per hour and occasionally touches 96.

When the coach that recruited him to UALR left, Tolliver transferred to the small NAIA school Oklahoma City University, and continued to dominate.

In 2009, he was drafted in the fifth round of the MLB draft by the Orioles, and has remained with that organization ever since.

But there was a time when his baseball future appeared bleak, and all of that notorious determination was needed. In spring of 2012, Tolliver had labrum surgery on his throwing arm. It’s a serious injury with a notoriously slow recovery process. He missed the entire 2012 season and said it took years for him to feel like his old self.

He was back at Single-A ball in 2013, and then bounced back and forth from Single-A to Double-A four times in 2014.

There was also a broken finger and hamstring issues he had dealt with, and when he returned home to work out at Sylvan Hills, like he does every offseason, Tipton could see the struggle.

“It was tough on him,” Tipton said. “It was just the frustration. It seemed like every time he would take two steps forward, something would happen out of his control, and he’d go five steps backwards. You could see some frustration, but there was never any lull in his work ethic or anything like that. He remained determined and just kept working harder.”

He spent all season at Bowie in 2015 and began to catch the Orioles’ eye once again with a 2.91 ERA in 39 appearances. He had the option of testing free agency, but chose to sign again with the Orioles this season, and it has paid off.

He joined the Orioles spring training as a non-roster invitee, and pitched well. Earlier in this week, the Orioles traded left-handed pitcher Brian Matusz, and had Tolliver on a short list of players to replace Matusz in the bullpen.

Personnel issues played a role in the decision to call Tolliver up to leapfrog three lefties on their Triple-A team in Norfolk, Va. All three were “out of options” according to Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “Out of options” is baseball farm system lingo. Clubs can only send players that have been brought up to the major leagues back to the minors in three separate seasons. If they are called up in a fourth season, teams must either keep them on the major league roster, or put them on waivers, making them available to other teams, before moving them back down. It’s a way to keep organizations from hording minor-league talent, and of protecting players from being yo-yo’d by organizations that are manipulating payroll.

At 28-years old, he’s an old rookie. But he came up through the minor leagues with several of the current Orioles, and having familiar faces on the team is a big help.

Tipton, who has been in communication with Tolliver since the call-up, thinks he’ll adjust just fine.

“He’s had to learn a lot in a very short period of time,” Tipton said. “It’s been a whirlwind for him, but I know he can handle.”

His debut indicates Tipton is right.