Out of nowhere, Torres fixture in Rays' bullpen
Starter in Minor Leagues, left-hander expected to continue to pitch in relief
ST. PETERSBURG -- Since joining the Rays' organization in 2009, Alex Torres had been recognized for different reasons. Until 2013, that recognition came for reasons other than what he could do on the mound.
First, the Venezuelan left-hander was known as one of the players involved in the Aug. 28, 2009, deal that sent Scott Kazmir to the Angels. Next, he carried the name "Baby 'Los" for his facial resemblance to former Rays first baseman Carlos Pena.
After what Torres accomplished this season, he is known simply as a powerful weapon in Tampa Bay's bullpen.
Torres' ascent to exalted status came out of nowhere. He spent exactly one day in the Major Leagues in 2012 as the Rays' 26th man during a June 24 doubleheader at Philadelphia. Torres did not pitch in the game and was returned to the Minors afterward.
Torres began the 2013 season with less than high expectations due to mediocre results as a Minor League starter. After beginning the season at Triple-A Durham, the 28-year-old began to change those expectations. The beginning came when Torres was recalled May 15 to take the place of injured David Price on the roster.
Torres pitched in two games during that brief stint before getting returned to Durham. But he didn't leave before making an impression during a four-inning appearance at Baltimore. Torres did not allow a baserunner while picking up the win.
Torres then worked hard to prevent the return to Durham from affecting his performance.
"Everything happens for a reason," Torres said. "They make decisions, I can't control that. I can only control making the most out of every time they give me an opportunity to pitch. I think the first time I got called up, I did a good job and thought I was going to stay. That depressed me a little bit when they sent me down, but I just kept it out of my head."
Torres rejoined Tampa Bay for good June 1. Then he let his pitching state his case for remaining with the team.
In Torres' first 20 appearances, he did not allow a run, establishing the second-longest scoreless streak to start a season in team history, behind Joe Borowski's streak of 21 in 2005. Torres finished at 4-2 with a 1.71 ERA in 39 appearances.
"I really feel happy for this year, this season I had," Torres said. "I got back my confidence."
Torres credited his fellow relievers for helping him rediscover his mojo, singling out Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta for their efforts.
"They just tell me every time to get ready mentally and stay focused on the game," Torres said. "Then, when you have some success, that kind of helps you find more success."
Peralta recalled talking to Torres in Baltimore when Torres first joined the team this season.
"I remember talking to him then and I did that throughout the season," Peralta said. "You could see his confidence grow. I told him, 'You have to believe you're better than anybody you're facing.' And he pitched that way, and I think that's what made him so good.
"Rodney and I kept telling him to just throw strikes. He had been wild before. He threw hard, but that was it. What I told him, and what Rodney did, was that nobody cares how hard you throw, if you don't throw strikes, you won't be here long."
Torres took the advice to heart, finishing with just 20 walks in 58 innings. Throw in 91 strikeouts and one understands why he's viewed as such a valuable bullpen weapon.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Torres became the second pitcher in the last 50 seasons to allow fewer than 10 hits in the first 100 (9-for-100) at-bats of a season, joining Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman (also 9-for-100).
Based on the premise that Price, the staff ace, could be pitching elsewhere in 2014, the question of whether Torres might be asked to return to starting duties is a legitimate one.
Peralta believes that moving Torres into the rotation would be difficult given the results.
"What can you do with a guy who is unhittable?" Peralta said. "You have to keep him [in the bullpen]. His confidence level is so high that he goes out there and believes he is going to get everybody out every day."
In an e-mail, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman addressed the possibility of Torres returning to the rotation:
"When you think about where Alex was at the end of 2012, his 2013 season seems even more amazing," Friedman said. "He grew a lot mentally, and it's safe to say that the numbers speak for themselves -- he was one of the best relief pitchers in the American League. That's a credit to Neil Allen, Marty DeMerritt, our pitching coordinators, Major League coaches and most of all to Alex himself.
"He can get both lefties and righties out and absolutely has the stuff to be a big league starter. But with the personnel we have, and the way he fit into a relief role this year, I think it's likely we'll see him stay in the bullpen in 2014, but it is too early to say anything definitive one way or the other."
For now, Torres is just happy to be in the Major Leagues, and he will gladly roll with the punches.
"I've been a starter my whole career, and I came up to the big leagues and they gave me an opportunity as a reliever," Torres said. "And I was that way right away and did well. So I think they know they can use me either way."