- photo: Al Drago
- Alexander Torres pitched his best game of the season with 3 hits and 12 strikeouts in 7 innings.
DBAP/ DURHAM—After we media mongrels finished interviewing Bulls starter Alexander Torres last night, following his seven-inning, three-hit, 12-strikeout domination of the Buffalo Bisons, he had a question for us. He wanted to know if we could understand his English okay.
The answer was yes. Torres, who is from Venezuela, has an accent, but it isn’t prohibitive; sometimes he misunderstands our questions and we have to repeat them, but he’s in fact a very well-spoken and earnest young man. He just wants to feel sure of himself when he’s being interviewed.
I spent part of last night’s game, a 4-1 Bulls win, sitting next to a scout. Scouts are basically barred from talking to opposing teams’ players, because it’s considered tampering, and the scout told me that he infers ballplayers’ characters from watching the way they play the game.
A tough assignment, and perhaps too prone to the pathetic fallacy, but good scouts pull it off. Brandon Guyer plays hard, all the time; he went all-out for a foul ball down the right-field line last night and would probably have wound up in the hospital had he not convinced himself, at full gallop, not to dive—he would have plowed face-first into a wall. Guyer’s all-out style, though, is unflashy—he plays All-Star caliber baseball (he’s on my ballot) almost without anyone noticing it. (He made a good play in the field last night, walked twice, doubled, and just missed a homer in the first inning, when he flied out after getting under a pitch by a micrometer or two.) Not surprisingly, Guyer’s clubhouse presence is quiet but strong, and although he’s soft-spoken he answers questions comfortably and responsively; he’s got a sense of humor, too.
Ray Olmedo is the diametric opposite: he jitterbugs and sashays out there, likes those behind-the-back flips to second when starting a double play, taps the ump’s shin guard with his bat when he comes to the plate to hit—no surprise that he likes to rub Ken Tanner’s belly during post-game “Star of the Game” interviews on the field (he translated for Leslie Anderson last night) and mock-heckle Dan Johnson when we ask Johnson about his homers. Jeremy Hellickson was monkishly affectless, on the field and off; Wade Davis stone-cold and unblinking on the mound, and supplemented his granitic presence with a dry monotone when he spoke to the media. Virgil Vasquez used to look like he was grimacing a third of the time, no matter where you saw him.
Had you watched Torres’s previous starts this year, and judged his character from those, you might have been skeptical. He worked slowly, wandering around off the mound often. He would walk hitters and look frustrated, as though he had some ongoing disagreement with his command—as though it was letting him down of its own accord and he had no power to harness it—and then would walk more hitters. You might have guessed that he was an uptight, restless guy, yet one with an untidy apartment, dishes in the sink, unpaid bills, a balky car. You might have imagined him waiting around for something good to happen, and being disappointed when it never did.
And then you would have seen him last night, and you would have to re-evaluate Alexander Torres.
Success breeds success, and it breeds confidence. Torres has had a tendency this season to get in trouble early, giving up walks and runs in the first inning of games—he came into the game last night having allowed nine runs and nine walks in 13 first-innings so far this season.
Last night, he needed just eight pitches to plow through the first inning, seven of them strikes. Michael Fisher flied out to center on the first pitch of the game. Nick Evans struck out swinging, Zach Lutz looking. In the second, Torres fanned Valentino Pascucci on three pitches (Pascucci struck out in all four of his at-bats) and Jason Botts on six more. Fernando Martinez doubled, but Torres got Luis Hernandez to ground out on the first pitch of Hernandez’s at-bat. Two innings, 20 pitches, 15 strikes. The Bisons had swung at half of those 20 pitches, a high rate.
Was Torres perfect from there on out? No. He walked three batters, and his fastball command was above average but not great. His changeup command, however, was superb—that’s his best pitch, and he knows it (the scout I sat next to observed that he commands his changeup better than he does his fastball—a rather unusual reversal). “I have more confidence in my changeup” than any other pitch, Torres said later. It was interesting, though, to hear him talk about the success he had with his curve last night—thinking back, it was indeed a good pitch for him, used sparingly but to good effect.
In the top of the third inning, Torres allowed a leadoff walk to Jesus Feliciano, on a full-count pitch. There have been times when Torres has gotten bent out of shape after such an event. He then threw ball one to Bisons catcher Raul Chavez, a 38-year-old lifer who came into the game batting .160.
Torres’s catcher, Robinson Chirinos—who continued to whack line drives last night (two hard-hit singles, two sizzling lineouts)—went out to the mound. Slow down, he said, according to Torres after the game. On the face of it, this sounded like awkward advice to give to a pitcher who tends to work far too slowly, dallying between pitches, establishing no rhythm, throwing too many pitches for too few outs.
But what Chirinos really meant by “slow down” was “self-possess”—or, more colloquially, “Get a hold of yourself.” Torres could have easily lost his confidence here, rushed into something bad. In fact, he threw ball two to Chavez, and on the third pitch Chavez ripped a grounder—right at third baseman J. J. Furmaniak, who gloved it and started a 5-4-3 double play. Then Torres struck out Fisher to end the inning.
More in the fourth: Nick Evans walloped a double to left-center field, but Torres—now working quickly and with purpose—struck out Lutz and Pascucci again. He walked Jason Botts, but broke Fernando Martinez’s bat with a riding fastball and got a weak popout. He pitched around a leadoff single in the fifth by Hernandez, adding his eighth and ninth strikeouts. He pitched around a third walk in the sixth, striking out Pascucci (looking) for the third straight time, and dialing his fastball up to 95 mph; it usually sits at 91-93. Torres needed 24 pitches for that inning, battling four very dangerous hitters into deep counts. He fought shrewdly, doggedly, and made excellent pitches when excellent pitches had to be made—especially with his changeup, in which he had full confidence.
And in the seventh, Torres, in full command, needed only 12 pitches, nine of them strikes, and the Bisons swung at seven of them—that’s what Dirk Hayhurst meant, to some degree, I think, when he encouraged pitching to contact in his piece for Bleacher Report the other day. You want to induce swings; you want to put pressure on the hitter by making it so he can’t not do that; you want those swings to be defensive, reactive. There were some foul balls off of Torres in the seventh inning, but he struck out Martinez and Hernandez swinging—and then, perhaps tiring bit (his pitches sailed once or twice, and his fastball ranged desultorily from 89 mph to 93), he hit Jesus Feliciano with two outs.
Two relievers were warming and ready in the bullpen, and Torres had thrown 102 pitches. Charlie Montoyo popped up from his seat in the dugout. He consulted closely with pitching coach Neil Allen—and left Torres in.
On his first pitch to Raul Chavez, during whose first at-bat Torres’s location problems had provoked a mound visit from Chirinos, Chavez hit a little topper about 20 feet to the third-base side of the mound. Torres rushed over, fielded it, set—with the super-slow Chavez running, he had time—and made a high throw to first base. Dan Johnson leaped, snared it, and came down foot-first on the first-base bag to retire Chavez and end the inning.
Montoyo told us later that he would have taken Torres out had Chavez reached.
So you can see: not a flawless night by any means. Torres lacked that cool, quiet mastery, the kind that Jeremy Hellickson and, these days, Alex Cobb have often displayed at the DBAP. You could almost imagine Torres walking into the dugout after retiring Chavez and asking Neil Allen, “Was that alright?” in much the same way that he ended a candid and satisfying post-game interview with the media by asking us if we could understand him. Yes—one almost wants to raise one’s voice in saying it, by way of affirmation—we can. Loud and clear, on the mound and off.
Torres said he’s been working very hard with Neil Allen between starts to improve his release point: weight back, then arm forward (simple stuff, not always easy to repeat). He said the release point has been of particular sensitivity with his curveball. That mechanical stuff is surely important, but I’m not sure Torres’s confidence wasn’t an equally big issue. That confidence expressed itself in his pace, which was much better: It was almost as if Torres was excited to get back on the rubber and throw his next pitch. And why not? The Bisons swung and missed at 16 out of 103 of them.
Torres is just 23. That’s not to say he can’t be confident: Cobb is, Hellickson was, at that age. But it’s important to remind ourselves, at times, that youthful confidence is often more like cockiness, and cockiness comes from results. Confidence is something you have even when you fail; with any luck, Torres will take away from last night’s start the notion that he can succeed even when failure lurks, even when it strikes. Hellickson and Wade Davis were calm after poor outings—had you not seen the game, you would never have been able to know from their demeanor whether they had pitched poorly or well. That’s confidence. Torres is still learning it, and last night may have imparted some valuable lessons to him.
So the Bulls scored four times, too—don’t worry, I didn’t forget, although Montoyo half-joked after the game that he himself couldn’t remember how the Bulls tallied their runs—Torres’s work made the scoring almost unnecessary. There were two RBI singles up the middle by Felipe Lopez, one from each side of the plate, a run-scoring groundout by Leslie Anderson (he reached on a throwing error), and then another contribution by Anderson: a long, opposite-field homer onto the berm in left-center off of Buffalo starter Jack Egbert, making his first Class AAA appearance since 2009, following Tommy John surgery.
It wasn’t an efficient night for the lineup—the Bulls had eight runners in scoring position with less than two outs but plated just three—but on this night, Torres provided the efficiency. The Bulls played errorless ball, largely because they only had to handle 12 chances: Brandon Gomes followed Torres’s dozen Ks with three of his own in the eighth inning, although he tried to sneak an 89-mph fastball past Evans (Gomes can throw 92) and Evans hit a solo homer, ruining the shutout.
And one more detail that’s worth noting on a night when Torres’s attention to detail—his precision—was at its best: Jake McGee, in for the fourth game in five nights, came on for a save opportunity in the ninth. Botts led off with a soft opposite-field single to right, and Martinez followed with a tough chopper to first base. Dan Johnson scooped it on a very difficult, in-between hop—the kind that often ends with ball kicking off the heel of a first baseman’s glove—and stepped on the bag for the first out. Had he not made the play, it would surely have been a double down the right-field line, and the tying run would have come to the plate with runners at second and third.
Instead, without that pressure on him, McGee retired the next two hitters on four pitches. His inning of work required eight pitches, seven of them strikes (the Bisons, probably ready to go home, swung seven times), just like Torres’s first inning: eight pitches, seven strikes. The symmetry reflected in McGee’s inning almost seemed like flattery of Torres by imitation.
One off-topic note: Former Bull Brian Sweeney (he started 10 games for Durham in 2005) relieved Egbert in the fifth inning, allowed the runner he inherited from Egbert to score, and ended up surrendering five hits in 1 2/3 innings. Sweeney is 37 years old. His catcher last night, Raul Chavez, is 38. I don’t expect I’ll ever see a 75-years-old battery in a Triple-A game ever again. Justice was served to Sweeney when they pitcher that spelled him, Justin Hampton, allowed Sweeney’s baserunner to score.
This was, I think, kind of a big win for the Bulls, who have won six of their last eight games. After losing game one of their recent four-game series at Gwinnett, they surrendered their division lead to the Braves for the first time in a month and a half. But they won the next three, plus the first game of the Buffalo series, to regain the lead and open two games of daylight over their Georgia rival. They split the next two games; going into last night, had they lost again, they would have wound up splitting the series with the Bisons, who aren’t one of the league’s stronger teams. A 2-2 split, it seemed, might stanch the momentum the Bulls had begun to gather, and it would also have further muted the Bulls’ recent performance at home—it would have left the Bulls’ home record since May 17 at exactly .500.
So the win represented what felt like an important upswing, especially with a much better team than Buffalo, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, coming to town for four games starting tonight. Moreover, Gwinnett lost, and the Bulls once again have a three-game division lead, a margin they haven’t enjoyed since June 5. Plenty will change between now and Labor Day, of course, but you have to think the Bulls, like Torres, are feeling a good deal more confident right now than they were after Torres’s last start six days ago—he pitched well and they beat Gwinnett, but led the Braves afterward by just one game—and came to the ballpark the next day in Gwinnett to find their teammate of two days earlier, Chris Carter, the league’s fifth-highest RBI man, in the other team’s lineup.
You’d think whatever confidence with which the Bulls left last night’s win would extend into tonight’s game, because staff ace Alex Cobb, fresh from a promising stint in the majors, was scheduled to make his first start for Durham since returning to Class AAA. But Cobb is ill with something fluish, and Brian Baker will start instead. Baker has been pitching generally much better lately, save for a stinker against Norfolk on June 12, but he wasn’t supposed to start tonight and there’s no telling what sort of rhythm he’ll be in. The Yankees counter with Lance Pendleton, like Cobb a recent big-league returnee. Pendleton has started just one game this season, though, and hasn’t thrown more than 52 pitches in any appearance so far in 2011; so it’s even less possible to predict what he’ll do, or how long he’ll be able to do it for, than what we’ll see from Baker. Yet another small reason why baseball is the greatest sport on earth. You’ll never shake my confidence in that opinion.