Hot Stove: Torres ready, willing to face heat

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Earlier in the week, before the Adam LaRoche trade rocked the Pirates' world, before Mike Gonzalez was sent off to Atlanta, Salomon Torres was choosing his words carefully when speaking of the chance he could take Gonzalez's place as closer.

He referred to himself as a "Plan B." He called himself a "substitute teacher" when asked about converting 11 of 12 save chances with a 1.26 ERA in Gonzalez's absence late last season. He described Gonzalez as "our closer for a long time to come."

None of the above hold true any longer, of course. Torres is Plan A now, and he seems plenty aware of what that means.

"As soon as I heard about the trade, I knew my responsibility was going to be greater," he said. "It's a great honor, an important job, a step up in my career. And I'm going to work very hard to make sure the trust the Pirates put in me is not in vain. I'm looking forward to the challenge."

Torres will be a full-time closer for the first time, so there are sure to be challenges.

One will be a lesser workload.

For some, that would be great news. Not Torres. He made 94 appearances last season, most in Major League Baseball, and has a long history of pitching better the more often he takes the mound. But that no longer will be the case, as manager Jim Tracy tends to call on his closers only in save situations.

Tracy said the team's plan, still formative, is to keep Torres busy in spring training and "stretch out his arm." That, he added, could help avoid the slow starts Torres has had the past two seasons.

Torres expects to work closely on this point with Kent Tekulve, who made 94 appearances as the Pirates' closer on the 1979 World Series championship team.

"Having Teke to talk to will help so much," Torres said. "I know I'm not going to be able to throw every day, and I have to learn how to deal with that. I'm going to have to keep myself active and sharp."

He laughed.

"Unless we win every day."

Torres will have to adjust to the pressure, too.

He had a taste of it in September. Shortly after twice keeping the New York Mets from clinching their division title at PNC Park, he stepped into a cauldron in Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium Sept. 20. One out, bases loaded, Pirates up by two, capacity crowd on its feet and roaring.

Torres had a full count on Matt Kemp and dared to throw a split-fingered fastball.

Whiff.

He had a full count on Jeff Kent, too, and threw another splitter.

Game over.

"I grew as a person and as a closer that night. I showed people I can handle it," Torres said. "I can still see those bases loaded against the Dodgers, and I remember thinking about throwing the splitter in those situations. I think now that maybe I was testing myself, to see how far I can go."

Tracy expressed confidence in his new closer.

"He's ready for it," he said. "He saw that down the stretch."

Buried treasure

The Pirates will unveil a new alternate jersey at PirateFest -- a three-day event that opens Friday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center -- that will re-introduce red to the color scheme. The team's colors were red and blue until 1948, and red made a comeback in 1997 before being removed two years ago.

The team will slightly alter the jersey used for spring training and batting practice, shifting a gold stripe from the shoulders to the sides above the waist.

Players appearing at PirateFest: Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Matt Capps, Tom Gorzelanny, Jose Bautista, LaRoche and Torres. Q&A sessions with management will include Kevin McClatchy, Dave Littlefield and Tracy. Bob Nutting, the new principal owner, will appear Sunday.

Torres is not surprised in the slightest that Texas is about to sign Sammy Sosa. It was earlier this month at the Rangers' complex in the Dominican Republic -- which Torres owns -- that Sosa put on a show of towering long balls in front of Texas scouts. And in front of Torres. "It was unbelievable," Torres said. "At my place, there's a hard wind that comes in from left field, and he's just killing the ball. Right into that wind."

Jonah Bayliss, one of the young relievers vying for a spot this spring, had an excellent winter in Venezuela, posting a 1.68 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 24 innings. He clearly enjoyed the rest of the trip, too, especially the typically exuberant crowds: "It was a unique experience. The people there have so much passion, so much joy. It reminds you that you're just playing a game, and I think we all need that sometimes."

The Pirates' Winter Caravan continues this week through West Virginia and Ohio, as well as Uniontown and Washington, Pa. Players on board: Sanchez, Wilson and Torres. For a full schedule, click on the Community button at pirates.mlb.com.

Twenty-six days until pitchers and catchers report.


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com ,


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