“Nick, will you just kind of explain that play with the fly ball? It seemed like you lost it in the lights.”
With a blank face, Nick Torres processes the reporter’s question.
The right fielder is seated in front of a blue NCAA backdrop, his hat brim pulled down low, with a gold Mustang etched onto the shoulder of the white jersey his broad shoulders fill out with ease.
Torres — cheeks still coated with eye black — takes a deep breath and responds.
“We were kind of concerned before that ball, actually, about the lighting,” he said. “Just got up above the lights, and I had no idea where it was. So, yeah. It’s just rough.”
It’s June 1, 2013, moments after game two of the NCAA Los Angeles Regional tournament.
The Mustangs jumped ahead to an early lead against tournament host UCLA, but things went south in the sixth inning. With two outs, the score at 4-1 and the bases loaded, Bruins designated hitter Kevin Williams sent a ball high into the Southern California sky.
At the post-game conference, tucked away in a corner of Jackie Robinson Stadium, a second reporter fires another question at Torres.
“Nick, I saw that you took a step in on that. Did you have an initial read on that fly ball?”
“Off the bat I just saw (a) pop-up,” Torres said. “It didn’t look like he hit it too well, so figured it would be right around where I was at. It wasn’t until the ball got down below the lights ‘til I saw it again and was able to pick it up.”
“By that time it was just too late.”
The ball landed just outside Torres’ reach, tying the game at four runs apiece and shifting the momentum of that game, that tournament and — as it turned out — the entire College World Series.
But Torres has no problem talking about that fly ball. It’s not a memory that stings, he said.
“By the end of the game I had kind of accepted it,” Torres said. “I was like, ‘You know what, this is something that you’ve got to wear. Some of the best guys that have ever played the game have had to deal with stuff like this.’”
For Torres, it’s all part of the learning process. The Lakewood, Calif. native has been tested periodically throughout his career, each battle with adversity an opportunity to mature.
To this day, Torres is happy with the way he handled the miscue in Los Angeles. But he’s a player characterized by his intensity, so being able to keep his emotions under control has taken time.
Just ask his girlfriend of a year and a half, Korrin Smith.
“Anyone will tell you on the field he wears his heart on his sleeve,” Smith said. “He’s an emotional player. You can tell when he’s pissed off. You can tell when he’s happy. You can’t hide that.”
Jordan Ellis, Cal Poly junior center fielder and Torres’ former club baseball teammate in high school, has gotten to know him well. Torres’ intensity hasn’t tapered off over the years, Ellis said.
“You always get the occasional blow-up, the occasional scream down first baseline after getting out or when (batting practice) doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to,” he said.
When that emotion is channeled, monster results ensue. Torres is one of Cal Poly’s premier players, having slugged .520 while leading the Mustangs with 49 RBIs and 19 doubles in 2013.
But his success hasn’t come without mental and physical struggle.
Torres’ high school career — plagued by injuries — wasn’t so kind to him. A broken knuckle, followed soon after by a broken tibia and fibula in his left foot, limited him to designated hitter duties during his freshman year. He played through his sophomore season with an aching right foot, only to find out he would need surgery immediately after the season.
“When I found out that I had broke my foot, I remember coming home and just laying on my bed,” Torres said. “I was silent on the whole way home from my hospital. I came home, laid on my bed and just cried for probably 20 minutes.”
When Torres made the varsity team at Lakewood High School, his coaches wouldn’t take a chance on him. They stuffed Torres — then a pitcher and infielder — in the bullpen for the entire season.
Torres has compiled a .355 average midway through his junior year at Cal Poly. He wasn’t given a single at-bat his junior year of high school. He finally saw consistent playing time during his senior year, and made the most of it, racking up a 2.73 ERA on the mound and a .373 average at the plate.
Nonetheless, college scouts tend to recruit younger high school players, so even though Torres performed as a top-notch player, he didn’t fit the criteria of a top-notch college prospect.
It wasn’t until April of his senior year — relatively late by recruiting standards — that one scout took a chance on Torres. That scout was Cal Poly assistant coach Teddy Warrecker.
“The timing of the whole thing — that he wasn’t really recruited — intensified his characteristics as a player,” Warrecker said. “I always described Nick as being a ferocious competitor, and that’s just about the highest compliment that you can pay a player. His freshman year he was very intent on proving himself every day in practice.”
With the opportunity to play on a big stage, Torres found himself slipping away.
“I kind of let my emotions control me freshman year,” he said. “On and off the field, I just didn’t make the best decisions. I would let one at-bat flow over to the next one. I would just be pissed off for the rest of the game.”
The Cal Poly baseball team works closely with sports psychologist Jeff Troesch, who helps the players enhance the mental aspect of their game.
One technique Troesch has helped implement is an exercise where players relax, remove all tension from the muscles and focus on breathing. They say a keyword — usually “calm” — that helps alleviate the stress as they exhale.
Simultaneously, they imagine themselves in a peaceful location, an anchor to remove themselves from the moment. They couple that imagery with a vivid and successful baseball memory.
Torres takes this approach to heart.
His comfort place is a beach on the coast of Southern California, not too far from his hometown. Torres hasn’t visited this particular beach often, but every time he has, it’s been completely vacant. With only a small stretch of sand along the water, the beach is devoid of people, leaving only the sound of crashing waves and the scent of the Pacific Ocean.
As Torres stands outside the batter’s box at Baggett Stadium, the beach only exists within his mind. It’s an escape, a way for Torres to flush out any negativity and focus on the task at hand.
“I’ve definitely grown in that sense where I’m able to control my emotions, my thoughts,” Torres said. “One of the big mental keys for me is just thinking positive. I get myself into trouble when I think, ‘You should’ve done this, you should’ve done that.’”
That growth was on full display earlier this season. On Feb. 21, during the Mustangs’ first road trip, he returned to Jackie Robinson Stadium for the first time since Cal Poly’s playoff hopes crumbled in 2013.
Naturally, the rematch with defending national champion UCLA was hyped up. Torres still thinks Cal Poly was the better team last year, and had no problem admitting the three-game series this season meant a little more.
He even acknowledged that standing under the lights in right field, the same spot where he missed that fly ball seven months prior, could’ve brought on some jitters.
In the third inning of the first game, a single by UCLA’s Ty Moore skidded by Torres in right field, letting Moore reach third base. Torres then overthrew his cutoff man, allowing Moore to score. His two errors put UCLA up by two runs and the Bruins would go on to win the game.
“I probably got a little too nonchalant,” Torres said. “After that I was like, ‘Shoot, what is it about this place?’”
He was frustrated, but not visibly. Torres regrouped and answered back the next day in appropriate fashion: He smacked a three-run home run and an RBI single.
“I ended up coming back into the dugout after the home run and was really fired up,” Torres said. “I just felt internally like I had turned a corner.”
The Mustangs won the next two games and, consequently, the series against UCLA. They’ve lost just four times all season.
Time and time again, the game of baseball has told Torres to walk away. But with each test, the chip on his shoulder grows.
“From being told I’m not going to make it, I’m not going to overcome an injury, getting overlooked by colleges, getting signed here last minute … all that stuff helps motivate me,” he said. “With all the work I’ve put in, I feel like I can compete with the best players in the country.”
Torres will likely be in that kind of company on June 5, the date of MLB’s First-Year Player Draft.
He was labeled No. 79 on Baseball America’s Early College Top Prospects list, and has once again put up top tier numbers during Cal Poly’s ascent to a No. 5 national ranking this season.
Through all of his trials and tribulations, the fire inside Torres intensifies. And as June approaches, it remains to be seen just how hot that flame can get. He’ll always carry that intensity with him on the field, but these days, he keeps it in check.
That’s what a fly ball lost in the lights can do to a player.
“Now if I miss a pitch, I’ll step out, be like, ‘Dammit, I should’ve hit that,’” Torres said. “Deep breath. Clear it. Onto the next pitch.”