RH: Tolle a Two-Way Threat for Shockers

The RoundHouse | 3/18/2022 2:30:00 PM

Pitching coaches are prepared for incremental improvement when students experiment. That is especially true when learning to throw a changeup, a pitch that requires a mix of deception and precision that often makes it the toughest to master.

Then there is that day in the Eck Stadium bullpen last fall. Wichita State pitching coach Mike Belfrey Demonstrated the grip for a circle changeup with freshman Payton Tolle. Tolle, who rarely used the pitch, started throwing.

“I show him a grip, and the next pitch he threw was like a plus change,” Belfrey said. “It’s not supposed to work like that. It takes time.”

That story is part of the explanation for why Tolle, from Yukon, Okla., is off to a strong start to his college career. He is Wichita State’s Saturday starter with a 1.38 earned run average and a 2-1 record in four starts, all six innings or longer. He is also hitting .323 with two home runs and three doubles in seven games as the designated hitter and one at first base.

The Shockers (8-8) open a weekend series against New Mexico (6-11) on Friday (6 pm) at Eck Stadium.

Four starts into his college career, Tolle loves throwing the changeup. He doesn’t consider himself proficient yet.

“It was awesome to see it that quickly,” Tolle said. “With a lot of things that happen in baseball, you’re not going to see the results that quickly. I like throwing it a whole lot. Once I can start really feeling it, being able to really put it where I want to, Instead of just throwing it over the plate, that’s when it will be really good.”

There is more than an ability to learn quickly helping Tolle bust out as a freshman.

His approach to the game is light-hearted and fun. It is also grounded in family and life experiences.

He grins at third baseman Xavier Casserilla when a ball is caught on the warning track and admits watching the ball in flight scared him a bit. He pumps his fist after throwing a good slider. He celebrates a defensive play by raising his hands in appreciation for his fielders.

Senior catcher Ross Cadena describes Tolle as an athlete who doesn’t take the game very seriously – and that is a good way to approach the sport. It keeps Tolle from falling into despair or getting too giddy.

“He goes out there and plays and has fun doing it,” Cadena said. “It’s obviously working.”

Tolle didn’t always play baseball with that attitude.

In high school, he let a bad at-bat ruin the next one, a bad game bleed into the next game. Then he realized those thoughts knocked him off track.

Talking with a sports psychologist about dealing with pressure, routines and putting a negative behind him helped. One tactic that worked – when he removes the plastic guard on his leg after an at-bat, it signals the end to that moment and cleansed his mind to pitch. In the dugout, he takes a breath or two to regroup and forget before returning to play.

“Just have fun,” he said. “I like laughing out there. Ever since I’ve changed my mindset to just having fun, that’s when I play my best. It’s fun to be here. I don’t take myself too serious.”

Tolle’s approach to baseball is rooted in his family and his Christian faith.

“Whenever people see me, I want them to see ‘That guy right there is playing for God; he’s not just playing for himself,'” he said. “Play for something bigger than yourself. Make somebody happy. Make somebody else excited about seeing something fun. That plays a big role into what I do and why I do it.”

Jina, his mother, is dealing with stage IV colon cancer. She was diagnosed in the summer of 2016 and is scheduled for her 100th chemotherapy round soon. Chad, his father, is facilities director at Crossings Community Church in Edmond, Okla.

“Long journey, but she’s a fighter,” Payton Tolle said. “She will come to pretty much every game she can. Even the away games and it’s like ‘Mom, it’s OK. It’s a long way away.”‘

When Belfrey watches Tolle play with joy, he thinks of that background. Baseball matters to him. Tolle is mature enough to understand other faces of life are important.

“His mom was given six months to live,” Pelfrey said. “She’s still going. I think that helps him and his perspective. Baseball isn’t life and death. You don’t have to go out there and play. You get to go out there and play.”

Paul Suellentrop covers Wichita State Athletics and the American Athletic Conference for university Strategic Communications. Story suggestion? Contact him at paul.suellentrop@wichita.edu.

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