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PATRICK REUSSE: Twins take a shot with pitcher Tootle

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins started their portion of the 2009 draft by selecting four college pitchers. Ben Tootle was the last of these as a third-rounder and No. 101 overall.

Patrick Reusse
Patrick Reusse is a columnist for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins started their portion of the 2009 draft by selecting four college pitchers. Ben Tootle was the last of these as a third-rounder and No. 101 overall.

This was a sizable drop for Tootle from an ESPN projection in February that had him being taken with the 18th choice in the first round. The culprit for Tootle was a virus that struck in early April.

Swine flu?

"The doctors didn't say anything about that -- just that it was a bad strain of a stomach virus," Tootle said. "I was throwing up for four days and didn't feel good for two weeks.

"I lost 15 pounds. I don't have any fat on my body, so it was all muscle and energy that I lost."

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Tootle was carrying 185 pounds on his 6-1 frame. Two weeks later, he was at 170. He missed three starts and made another when feeling weak.

"That didn't go well, to say the least," he said.

Tootle was clobbered for five runs in two innings by Eastern Kentucky in late April. His ERA soared by a run to the mid-4s. He finished 3-4 with a 4.56 ERA, and Jacksonville State's season ended in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.

There had been as many 50 scouts and club officials watching Tootle when he pitched in Winter Haven, Fla., in March. This interest was based on his work last summer as a closer for Falmouth in the Cape Cod League.

"I had been a starter my whole life," he said. "They put me in the closer's role. I liked pitching in that cooler weather on the Cape. I was coming in for an inning and felt like I could throw the ball through the wall on every pitch."

According to some radar guns, Tootle reached 100 miles per hour on selected pitches and hit 98 with consistency. He was rated as the third-best prospect among 2009 draft eligibles in the nation's top collegiate summer league.

He was a starter again this spring for Jacksonville State, a university in northeastern Alabama, and he still was carrying first-round potential. Then came the virus, and a fastball with not as much life, and scouts started to back away.

"At first, I was mad that the season wasn't going the way I wanted it to," said Tootle, 21. "Eventually, I realized there was nothing I could do about it -- that my option was to do what I could to help the team.

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"I felt good the last two, three starts, and my fastball was where it belonged."

Tootle was raised in Oxford, Ala. He was of medium height and skinny, and the SEC baseball powerhouses showed no interest. He didn't see Jacksonville State as a consolation prize.

"Jacksonville is only 25 miles from Oxford, and it's a good college program," he said.

Tootle arrived at Jacksonville State with a windup featuring a leg kick that made him look like a right-handed Dontrelle Willis. Jim Case, the Gamecocks head coach, also was the pitching coach.

"He left me alone, let me do my thing with the leg kick," Tootle said. "Slowly, we worked to refine my mechanics. It's still a big leg kick compared to most pitchers, but not what it was."

Tootle was asked for a personal scouting report and offered this:

"As a starter, my fastball ranges from 94 to 96, but I can reach back and hit 98 when I need it. And, I do know throwing hard will only get you so far.

"My control is good and I'm going to work to make it better. Scouts usually say I throw a slider, but I call it a 'spike curve'; grip it like a curve and spike it (toward the zone).

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"I haven't used a changeup. As a starter, I have to use it in more situations."

And if he's a closer? "I'll do what I did last summer -- throw as hard as I can for an inning and see if that works," he said.

Players who took a tumble in the draft can be tough to sign. Tootle has Bo McKinnis of Nashville as his negotiator and wants a quick deal.

"I want to get started with pro ball," he said. "Being from the South, I didn't know much about the Minnesota Twins, but now I'm one of their biggest fans."

Related Topics: BASEBALL
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