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Precocious Power

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his first four starts this season, Joe Torres pitched a no-hitter, two one-hitters and a two-hitter.

He blew away hitters with a fastball clocked as high as 96 mph. He fooled them with a curveball that took a staggering break five feet off the plate. Against one team, he struck out 16.

And when his streak of gems was over, Torres’ record was . . . 0-4.

It’s the maddening truth.

Players on Torres’ team at Gateway High in Kissimmee, Fla., struggled with their hitting--only three posted averages of .300 or better--and catching, for that matter.

How many times did Torres strike out a batter, only to see him wind up on base when the catcher couldn’t corral one of his curves?

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Somehow, Torres managed to take his peers’ shortcomings in stride. “I knew what I was getting into going into the season,” he said. “I was cool with it.”

Said teammate Gerardo Santiago: “It didn’t bother him much. To him, it was go out there, do his game. Once the game’s over, move on.”

Perhaps that’s why the Angels made Torres their top pick in Monday’s free-agent draft, selecting him 10th in the first round. Torres, a left-hander, not only possesses a major league fastball and a curve widely considered the best in the draft, but also has a level-headedness rarely seen in 17-year-old ballplayers.

“He’s real tough,” Gateway Coach David Ridenour said. “He’s definitely a gamer. I think it would have been easy for him, being 0-4, to shut down and not go out. He just didn’t do that. He went out and proceeded to go 4-0 the rest of the season.”

The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Torres, whose team finally scored a run for him in his fifth start of the season, finished 4-4 with one save, a 0.38 earned-run average and 128 strikeouts in 55 innings. He gave up only 13 hits and walked 22.

“He’s a three-pitch pitcher--fastball, curve and slider,” said Tom Kotchman, the Angels’ scouting supervisor for Florida. “He’s like a lot of other kids, where he’s a good pitcher with good stuff. But like a lot of kids, he lacks command. That’s something he’s going to have to work on in the minors.”

The Angels are still in negotiations with Torres’ father, Hughes, regarding a contract and a signing bonus that is expected to be in the $2-million range. Torres, who signed a letter of intent with Miami, said he hopes to sign with the Angels upon his return Tuesday from a vacation in Cancun.

“I was so proud to be an Angel when they picked me,” said Torres, who said he wore a new Angel cap almost everywhere he went in Cancun. “I felt great.”

Torres said his goal is to make the big league roster within three years, but Angel officials said there’s no rush.

“It all depends on the way he adjusts, the way his repertoire and command develop,” said Donny Rowland, the club’s director of scouting. “We are certainly not going to rush Joe Torres. We want him to be as good as he can possibly be the day he steps on the major league mound.”

Big-League Ambitions

Making the major leagues wasn’t only Torres’ childhood dream, it was his mission.

“We’d be throwing in the backyard when we were little,” said Santiago, Torres’ closest friend, “and he’d throw a fastball. He’d be like, ‘See this? See this? It’s going to the pros.’ ”

There have been some rocky moments, though they were few. When he got his long-awaited chance to pitch in junior high, Torres hit two batters in his first inning on the mound. “Nobody scored, though,” he points out.

Shortly thereafter, a relative showed Torres how to grip a curveball. But the amazing break it took just before reaching the plate was all Torres’ doing.

“I think a monkey could have shown him the grip of the curveball and he could have thrown it,” Hughes Torres said. “It just came natural for him.”

Torres’ development continued in high school. He put on some muscle, added about 15 mph to his fastball and, with the help of his father, honed his mental approach. Before each game, Hughes Torres would break down opposing hitters’ strengths and weaknesses. Then Hughes would remind his son: “Don’t forget that the plate belongs to you.”

A happy-go-lucky guy off the field, Torres was transformed into a demon on it.

“On the mound, I’m all business,” he said. “I just see the batter, the catcher and the umpire. All those scouts every game? I don’t see them. The crowd? I don’t see them. I just think that I’m better than the hitter and there’s no way he’s going to get a hit off me.”

Said Hughes Torres: “He is so focused out there that sometimes he has this look. It’s a blank look. So intense.”

Moving on Up

Former major leaguer Chet Lemon, Torres’ summer-league coach, helped the prospect take his game to the next level. Lemon arranged for Torres to play in a tournament during which players were selected for the USA youth national team.

Torres not only made the team, which went on to win a gold medal, but picked up a victory in a game against Guam. The following summer, with the junior national team, Torres entered the game against Chinese Taipei that clinched a second gold and nailed down another win.

Perhaps just as important as Torres’ talent is his leadership. “I’m really a person who likes to get a team going,” he said. “When someone hits a home run, I want to be the first to greet him. I want to get things going in the clubhouse.”

Torres’ high school teammates say he has the kind of easygoing personality that others naturally gravitate toward. “We had some slackers on our team,” Santiago said, “but everybody volunteered to stretch him out and catch for him.”

No longer burdened by the weaknesses of his high school team, Torres is eager to start his climb to the major leagues.

Once signed, he will likely report to the Angels’ rookie-league club in either Butte, Mont., or Boise, Idaho, where Kotchman is the manager.

Torres and his father anticipate a meteoric rise.

“When he hits the major leagues, I have no doubt this boy is going to be there to stay,” Hughes Torres said. “I am going to be very happy.”

The Angels will be too.


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