Prior to last summer, Ben Tootle knew what he wanted his life after baseball to look like. A biology major with medical school aspirations, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound righthander envisioned himself becoming the next Dr. James Andrews after his career at Jacksonville State came to a close. If Tootle wasn’t going to pitch at the next level, he was going to make sure that others could.
Then in June he made the trek from his hometown of Oxford, Ala., to Massachusetts, where he exchanged his Gamecocks hat for a new one—literally and figuratively.
After spending his first two years at Jacksonville State pitching as a starter, Tootle spent the next three months as the closer for the Falmouth Commodores of the Cape Cod League while staying with the McKenzies, the host family to whom he is grateful for not having treated him “like a little kid.” Tossing 32 innings and going 3-3, 1.97 with 44 strikeouts and five saves, Tootle was anything but a little kid on the mound—he was an intimidating presence with a lively fastball that put pro scouts on notice. He ranked as the No. 4 prospect in the league.
Emerging from relative obscurity to become a legitimate first-round talent, Tootle may never have to shelve the baseball glove for a stethoscope. The attention has come suddenly, but he knows that he must remain collected if he is to realize an ambition of playing pro ball.
“I don’t really feel any pressure as far as the draft and the scouts go,” Tootle said. “I wasn’t really used to having a lot of scouts behind home plate, and I got up there and kind of got used to it. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem this year. I’m just going to throw like I always have.”
Jacksonville State coach Jim Case expects the success Tootle had against some of the nation’s premier amateur talent to pay dividends for the Gamecocks this season.
“It gave him a tremendous amount of confidence,” Case said. “From a physical standpoint, there’s probably not a whole lot of difference from when he left and when he came back. But from a mental standpoint, when you’re put against the best players in the country and you have success, you have confidence that comes from that.”
Pitching as the closer also gave Tootle a better understanding of how to operate in tough spots.
“I had to come into the game when the game was on the line or in tight situations with a runner on third or second,” Tootle said. “I think it’s really going to help this season when I get into jams and I have to bear down and get it done.”
In 2008, Tootle went 10-2, 3.87 with 79 strikeouts in 87 innings and helped lead Jacksonville State to the top of the Ohio Valley Conference with a league-record 23-4 mark. Although he allowed just one earned run in his final 19 frames to end the season, the Gamecocks missed the NCAA tournament as the team failed to win the conference tournament. This year, Tootle is conscious of what has to be accomplished first if the team is to meet its postseason goals.
“We have to win our conference tournament to get into the regional,” Tootle said. “And we’ve talked about not just settling for the regional. We’ve talked about coming in there and getting an upset.”
Still Work To Do
Throughout team meetings and the preseason conditioning program, Case has emphasized not ever being satisfied with what already has been achieved. Tootle has heeded that message, as he is mindful of the improvements he must make to become a better player.
Lefties hit .311 against Tootle last season, a problem that could be remedied if he can tighten up his breaking ball, which he calls a spike curveball.
“He has a first-round arm, now he’s got to go out and perform,” one NL scouting director said. “I saw him up to 98 mph, but his (breaking ball) can get big at times and lefthanders can see it well.”
The power righty will also need to develop a third pitch if he wants to remain a starter in pro ball. Case says Tootle has worked on throwing his changeup more than anything else this offseason, part of his relentless drive to become a more complete pitcher.
“He throws an unbelievable amount, more than anyone I’ve ever coached,” Case said. “There’s just no telling how many changeups he throws in the outfield a day. And he’s not doing it so that people can see it.”
Although Tootle is finding it more difficult to avoid the spotlight these days, he has managed to keep part of what makes him one of the nation’s finest pitchers under wraps.
“He’s kind of a soft-spoken guy and not one that draws a whole lot of attention to himself,” Case said. “What I think gets lost is his competitiveness.
“He’s a very driven kid and that has a lot to do with what he has accomplished. He’s not content with being above-average. He wants to be the best.”