LOS ANGELES -- Imagine being a better pitcher than Clayton Kershaw. That was Shawn Tolleson, when both were Dallas-area high school stars entering their senior year.
"He was probably the best high school pitcher in Texas, bar none," Kershaw said.
Then imagine blowing out your elbow as a high school senior, imagine not being drafted when Kershaw went in the first round, imagine struggling through three seasons at Baylor while Kershaw was racing to big league stardom. Imagine being drafted your junior year of college in the 30th round and signing for $20,000 with the same organization that gave your high school rival $2.3 million.
Tolleson doesn't have to imagine any of it. He's lived it, and it says a lot about who he is that when asked if any of it has him bitter, he responds like this:
"I wouldn't have changed my path at all," said the 24-year-old right-hander, now a legitimate Dodgers closer prospect and last year's organization Minor League pitcher of the year. "I got an education at Baylor, and I'm proud of that."
Other than the one from Tommy John surgery, Tolleson doesn't seem scarred by the setbacks.
"Once I got into the system, I just pitched," he said. "My dream was still there."
It seemed like a long-shot dream for Tolleson when he went 2-7 with a 5.17 ERA for Baylor in 2010 and dropped off the Draft radar, but Kershaw hadn't forgotten about him and continued to lobby Dodgers draft chief Logan White to give Tolleson a chance.
"People had concerns over his injury," White recalled. "Plus, his college numbers were not good. But Kershaw kept hounding me about him ... they are friends. We had some inside info from CK on his makeup. Our area scout, Clint Bowers, was a first-year scout and wasn't locked into preconceived notions. I think Clayton being a Dodger and talking well about us certainly helped make it possible to sign him."
Tolleson, a starting pitcher in college, signed in 2010 and was sent to Rookie-level Ogden, where the starting rotation was full. Tolleson was sent to the bullpen, at which point "something clicked."
"If I knew what it was, I'd tell everybody to do it," he said. "I just found a consistent delivery and started throwing a lot of strikes. I think maybe going to the bullpen simplified things. I just used my two pitches and wasn't playing games with anybody. I went back to the basics of pitching."
Tolleson had a 0.63 ERA in 26 games at Ogden with 39 strikeouts and only five walks in 28 2/3 innings.
"My first outing, I threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings and they said, 'OK, you're a closer,' " he said.
Proving that debut was no fluke, Tolleson dominated at three levels in 2011, amassing some eye-popping composite numbers: 1.17 ERA, 105 strikeouts, 18 walks, 69 innings, 25 saves.
"My velocity increased after I signed, and I attribute it to the coaching staff in the Minor League system, they really helped a lot and I learned to get the most out of my mechanics," Tolleson said.
He said he watched Kershaw and another Dallas-area pitcher, Angels All-Star closer Jordan Walden, succeed while he was sidelined for two years rehabbing from surgery. But even with an erratic college career and disappointing Draft result, Tolleson hadn't lost the dream of pitching in the big leagues.
"I went into Ogden with the mindset of being successful, otherwise there's no point in even going," he said. "If you had asked me in the beginning of the season what round I thought I'd be drafted, I wouldn't have said anything close to the 30th. But after the season I had, I didn't know what to expect. I got a late start, but I'm still working to get to the place they're at."
When he was one of 15 Minor Leaguers invited to the Dodgers' developmental camp in January, it was a clear sign from management that Tolleson was back on the fast track.
Tolleson and Kershaw, who met as teammates on a select All-Star team at age 14 and played on the USA Junior National Team in 2005, remain close friends, even participating in each other's weddings last offseason.
Like Kershaw -- who broke through with the addition of a slider -- Tolleson is in the process of adding a changeup to his two-pitch repertoire of a four-seam fastball and two-seam cutter.
"It's a weapon to use against left-handed hitters [they hit .342 off him at Double-A] and I've got confidence in it now and I'll be throwing it this year," he said.
Tolleson works out with Kershaw during the winter and got a taste of what it might be like being teammates again during the developmental camp at Dodger Stadium.
"I could get used to being there," he said.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.