Before Evan Longoria found the moment he was made for; before Dan Johnson went all Great Pumpkin on some unlucky rightfield bystander's lesser pumpkins; before the Corey Wade sleeper cell was activated; before everything we think of as Game 162 could take place, there was game 158 against the Toronto Blue Jays, and after one inning it was clear to everyone that Jeff Niemann simply didn't have it.
Niemann was lucky to get out of the first having only given up two runs, coming off an Eric Thames walk and a Jose Bautista homer. He'd also allowed another walk and a double. The Rays got the two runs back in the bottom of the inning to tie up the game, but with playoffs hopes on the line, Joe Maddon lost his patience with Niemann. He pulled him after only one inning of work, and turned the game—no, turned the season—over to a rookie.
I suppose I should have known what to expect. I'd read the scouting reports praising the movement on his pitches. When Baseball America ranked him as the Rays' sixth-best prospect going into the 2011 season, they said:
Torres has a strong lower half that helps him produce lively stuff. His low-90s fastball has outstanding movement, and his changeup is just as effective. . . .Scouts laud his competitiveness.
Still, with the season prepped and ready to slip away into failure, I didn't feel confident. Those scouting reports also noted a lack of control, and in three previous innings of major league work, Torres had already walked six batters.
This is what Torres gave us:
I will always remember this game for the moment I realized that reading about "stuff" described in the precise, sterile language used by scouts and watching the man pitch for yourself are very different experiences. "Outstanding movement" didn't begin to describe how his 2-2 changeup would slide through the backdoor to freeze Adam Loewen. It had nothing to say about the way his 91 mph fastball down-and-in would bite toward the back leg of Colby Rasmus and produce a weak chopper to second base, or how another fastball in almost the same location would find its way under Loewen's bat for another strikeout of the hapless DH.
I'm sure the Baseball America scout who wrote the report knew that Torres would be unafraid to throw his changeup in fastball situations, but despite reading the report, I was shocked and exhilarated as he baffled the Toronto lineup with a nearly even split between fastball and changeup, and even went to the offspeed well in back-to-back 3-2 counts to strike (a strikeout both times).
Torres's three previous appearances had come in parks (New York and Boston) with an offset television camera that distorts and hides the lateral movement on pitches. This game was the first time I got to watch him through the straight-back camera at The Trop, and I was hooked.
Torres's 2012 season was lost to his darker wild side, prompting the team to shift the once-promising starter to a bullpen role. When winter league observers noted that his command looked good, few of us fans believed. That made his success in 2013 all the more sweet, and his leaving all the more bitter.
The analyst in me can look at Torres's career so far and understand that he's a risky player to pin your hopes on. I can see how Logan Forsythe will solidify the Rays' lineup against lefties and how Brad Boxberger could develop into a high-leverage reliever himself. Still, those guys are just scouting reports right now, and Alex Torres is far more than that. In what amounts to only one season's worth of games, the undersized lefty with the ridiculous run on his changeup and the contagious grimace (that comes out only as he pumps his fist after escaping a jam) has managed to become something of a fan favorite here.
San Diego, enjoy him. I think you'll understand after the first time Josh Johnson loads the bases in a park with a straight-back camera.