Baseball is filled with superstitions.
From Wade Boggs eating chicken before every game, to Jason Giambi not shaving to keep his hitting steaks intact, to the Billy Goat in Chicago – superstitions are submersed deep within the confines of baseball.
Like most players, UMass pitcher Dennis Torres has his own rituals and routines he performs leading up to and during games when he takes the mound for the Massachusetts baseball team.
“I drink a Red Bull and a lemon-lime Gatorade and chew gum all day leading up to my start, including when I’m pitching,” said Torres, who has emerged as one of the elite pitchers in the Atlantic 10 conference, and a staple for this year’s Minutemen pitching staff. “I started doing it last summer while playing summer ball.”
Torres’ superstitions have allowed him to calm down while he’s on the mound. He credits his new demeanor on the mound to tips he learned from his summer league coach last summer when he played for the Seacoast Mavericks of the Future Collegiate Baseball League.
“During the summer, my coach [Chris Anderson] was telling me that I was thinking too much while I was out there,” said Torres. “So, he said ‘chew some gum out there or something, stop thinking so much.’ That was some of the best advice I’ve been told so far while playing baseball.”
Despite the helpful advice, Torres is not a better pitcher and all-around player because of some gum, Gatorade and energy drinks. It’s more likely that the results stem from his hard work and dedication. His 94 miles per hour fastball helps too.
Torres’s story begins in Lawrence, where he was born and raised. Growing up in a rough part of the city, Torres was exposed to some graphic and haunting experiences at a young age.
“I definitely saw some stuff that I wish I didn’t see,” said Torres of his inner-city life while growing up as the youngest of four children. “But, to be honest, I’m almost glad I was … it made me the person I am today.”
As the youngest of four, Torres saw all three of his sisters drop out of high school to work and help provide for the family. Torres’s father, Denesi, did the same for the same reasons when he was 17 years old. However, Denesi, who played football, basketball and baseball, used sports as a tool to help Dennis form structure in his life as a youth.
“It was always ‘let’s go play catch’ or ‘let’s go outside and shoot hoops’” said Torres, who started playing organized sports as young as six. “He always wanted me to be active, to not be sitting around. He’s without [a] doubt the biggest influence in my life.”
When the time came for Torres to decide on where to attend high school, the answer was clear: Central Catholic in Lawrence.
“All my friends were going there, and I knew that if I went to Lawrence High, there would be a real chance that I would fall into the wrong crowds,” said Torres. “Plus, it was an opportunity for me to have a real chance to go to college if I did well enough.”
At Central Catholic, Torres was a four-year letter winner. He played football, ran indoor track and threw javelin, and maintained a 3.5 grade-point average. He received a Principal Scholarship award as a sophomore for his academic excellence.
“Seeing everything around me, I was just really motivated to always get out and go to school,” said Torres.
For all of his success on the football field and in the classroom, making it on a baseball diamond was one goal that wasn’t quite reached.
Despite his efforts, Torres was cut during tryouts from the school’s baseball team all four years. Instead, he played summer ball for Lawrence’s Legion Post league, where most high school athletes and underclassmen in college play during the summer to hone their skills.
“I played mostly third base and occasionally pitched an inning or two, nothing serious on the mound,” said Torres.
After high school, Torres began attending UMass, pursuing a degree in accounting.
After a year off from athletics, his competitive drive still lingered. Going into his sophomore year in fall 2009, Torres’s father recommended that Dennis go out for the team.
“He was very supportive of me in whatever I did, but he said ‘hey, what’s the worst that can happen? You get cut…you can’t be afraid to give things a shot sometimes,’” said Torres, who missed the first tryout practice because of some last-minute issues with his paperwork. For whatever the reason, coach [Mike] Stone allowed me to come, even after missing that first tryout date … I owe him a lot for giving me that shot.”
Torres survived a number of cuts and made his way up the ladder, showing the coaches that he belonged.
“They asked me what I wanted to play, so I told them I wanted to pitch,” said Torres. “I felt that being a pitcher and throwing hard was my biggest asset I could bring to the team.”
Despite not travelling to Florida last spring during his first season with the program, Torres cracked the starting rotation upon the team’s arrival back. His overall season numbers were bleak with a 7.04 earned run average, 46 innings pitched, 21 walks and a .355 opponents batting average. However, the numbers were deceiving. He steadily progressed as the season went on, and began to throw more innings per start.
After his first season playing collegiate baseball, Torres returned home to Lawrence, and played in a men’s league to build up his arm strength. After a couple of weeks, he received a call from a friend, Anderson, who was the Mavericks manager in Rochester, N.H.
“He called me up and said that a couple pitchers went down due to injury, and asked if I wanted to come up and try out,” said Torres, who made the 90-plus minute trip up to Rochester. “After one bullpen sessions, they offered me a contract, and I jumped at it.”
For the rest of last summer, Torres pitched for the Mavericks, and posted a 3.15 ERA and struck out 39 batters over 40 innings of work.
“Besides getting the chance to build my arm up against quality hitters, the best part of the experience was living the life of a minor-leaguer, so to speak,” said Torres. “Being on a bus, getting friendly with the guys … it was baseball, baseball, baseball, all the time.”
When he arrived on campus last fall, Torres had revamped his body. His goal was to be a more effective pitcher, and to use his entire body to gain velocity, not just his arm to drive the ball to the plate.
The results: five-plus miles an hour to his fastball, progression of his curveball and a third pitch in his arsenal – the changeup.
“I found out quickly that you really have to use your whole body to be an effective pitcher,” said Torres. “It’s about getting into the fifth inning, and knowing when you’re in shape and when you’re not. With the help of the trainers and coaches, I’ve been able to change everything about how I go about getting myself into shape.”
This season, Torres is responsible for helping to anchor the pitching staff, in hopes of getting the program back to the top of the conference.
All the progression not only has Torres and his team excited for what’s ahead, but his abilities also have Major League Baseball scouts talking.
“Last fall, I had the opportunity to talk to some scouts from teams about my future,” said Torres. “I’m going to be really patient and focus on this season alone, but I’m excited for what may be ahead.”
Scott Cournoyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MDC_Cournoyer.