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Unflappable Alex Torres rises to the occasion for Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG

In front of the locker is a small pink suitcase with a matching pink umbrella. Dora the Explorer model, if you must know.

This is what teammates handed Alex Torres a few days ago when they needed some callow rookie to carry their gum and sunflower seeds to the bullpen before games.

And inside that same locker on a shelf was a solitary baseball — not yet authenticated, not yet inscribed with the dates and details of his first major-league victory.

It is what manager Joe Maddon handed Torres on Saturday evening when the Rays needed that same fresh-faced rookie to carry a reeling team in a pennant race.

"Great moment for him. For us, too," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "That's the kind of thing that can catapult you."

It is difficult to overstate how dire the moment was and how large Torres responded for the Rays on Saturday night.

This is a season with little time remaining and even less margin for error, and this is a 23-year-old pitcher with little justification for pitching in a game quite so large.

He was practically an afterthought when the Rays were calling up players from Triple-A Durham in recent weeks. Of the first 21 big-league batters he faced, 12 reached base.

Yet when Maddon made the decision to pull Jeff Niemann after one inning against the Blue Jays on Saturday, Torres was his default choice in the bullpen.

"I was uneasy about it. Very uneasy," Maddon said. "But I knew this kid has got good makeup. I knew he wasn't afraid, which matters. You can't put somebody skittish out there at that moment."

The first few batters Torres faced hit bullets that somehow found gloves in the outfield. Then he gave up a pair of hits and an intentional walk. Yet somehow the rookie survived. And every time Maddon thought about pulling him, Torres picked it up a notch.

"I only knew him as Torres," designated hitter Johnny Damon said. "I'm glad I know his first name now."

Five innings later, he had not surrendered a run, and the Rays were clinging to a 3-2 lead. A few innings after that, it was a 6-2 final and Rays pitchers were shoving Torres in the shower, where they doused him with cans of Bud Light. Enough to empty the clubhouse supply.

"It was freezing," James Shields said. "First big-league victory, and he deserved it. He pitched great."

At this point, the Rays are going on fumes. They have used rookie pitchers in 12 consecutive games, including three pitchers who began the month in the minors. Of their 102 innings pitched since Sept. 13, rookies have accounted for half the load.

The Rays have gone 2-4 this past week and have somehow gained ground on the hapless Red Sox. It's like being run down from behind by the neighborhood fat kid.

The biggest games of the season and the Rays are surviving with Matt Moore and Torres getting their first big-league victories.

Moore, at least, came with a certain amount of expectation. Torres is more of a wild card. His talent is undeniable, but he has spent six seasons in the minors because he has struggled throwing strikes.

He has routinely averaged nine, 10 strikeouts per nine innings but has averaged four and five walks throughout much of his minor-league career.

In recent days, Hickey and assistant pitching coach Stan Boroski have worked with Torres on getting his delivery to go more north-south instead of side to side. The idea is he can better control his pitches if he's moving in one fluid direction.

The results appear evident. Torres had given up 13 walks in his last 17 minor-league innings in Durham, but the only walk he surrendered in five innings Saturday was the intentional pass to Edwin Encarnacion.

"Absolutely, positively it says something about his heart," Hickey said. "You saw him drop first-pitch changeups to left-hander hitters and 3-2 changeups."

All for a kid who was supposedly part of Tampa Bay's white-flag surrender in 2009.

You remember Scott Kazmir, right? In the midst of another pennant race, the Rays unloaded Kazmir's bloated contract on the Angels for Sean Rodriguez and a couple of minor-league prospects.

Well, the Angels are paying Kazmir $12 million to stay away from Anaheim this season, and 3,000 miles away, one of those prospects was helping the Rays stay ahead of the Angels in the wild-card race.

"That kind of game borders on the magical," Maddon said. "The next couple of days could truly make it magical.

"But for right now, it gets us 11/2 games behind, which is huge."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Unflappable Alex Torres rises to the occasion for Tampa Bay Rays 09/24/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 25, 2011 12:34pm]
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