The Tusculum Pioneers are no strangers to winning. They have reeled off at least 30 wins in each of the past 13 seasons. This year would be no different, as they sit at 32-12 right atop the South Atlantic Conference with Catawba. They have gotten there this season behind solid pitching.
Tusculum’s staff finds themselves atop the national leaderboard in quite a few categories. The Pioneers rotation has them in the Top 5 in all of DII in WHIP, ERA, strikeout per nine and shutouts. Junior Ethan Carpenter has made great strides from last season, as has junior lefty Zach Slagle. Despite strong seasons, neither have displayed the utter dominance that senior left-hander Placido Torres has.
Torres has been nothing short of electric this season. Heading into the final weekend of regular season play, Torres leads all of DII in ERA at 0.61 as he sits at 9-0 over 11 starts with five complete games including three shutouts. He leads the entire country across all levels of collegiate baseball in strikeouts at 133. In fact, it’s not even close. You would be hard pressed to find a hotter — or better — pitcher anywhere in the nation right now.
Torres has always been known for mind-boggling strikeout to walk ratios and a stinginess in allowing runs to score. As a youngster, he emulated Ken Griffey, Jr., however, early on in his Little League career, his coach saw something special.
“When I was younger I played center field,” Torres said. “I had a pretty good arm, so my coach asked me to pitch and I’ve been pitching ever since.”
His idol switched from The Kid to David Price, and Torres would become a star lefty just like Price. He would really start to garner attention at ASA College in the NJCAA. He finished his two-year JUCO career with a combined 15-4 record and 1.17 ERA. He struck out 157 while walking a mere 37 batters over 130 innings over that span.
He came to Tusculum in 2015 and quickly found his way to the top of the weekend starting rotation. His debut DII season went well, seeing him go 9-3 with a 2.43 ERA and 110 strikeouts in just 85.1 innings pitched.
“I spoke to Coach [Doug] Jones a lot before I committed here,” Torres said. “He told me about the baseball program and how they run things here and that attracted me here. I had a few other schools. The fields here, the baseball fields here got me interested, too, but I loved the coaching staff. They’re amazing.”
It was how he finished last season that the Pioneers knew they really had something special. He closed the season out with four wins in his last four starts, including an impressive 8.1 inning performance in his first taste of SAC postseason tournament play. He allowed no earned runs while striking out nine before their closer Devan Watts shut the door on Lincoln Memorial. Torres also broke the Tusculum single-season strikeout record of 96 in that same game.
“Last year I was new to the league,” Torres said of how it took a few starts to find his groove. “There's a big difference between JUCO and DII. Just like everybody else I had to adjust, and that’s what I did. I adjusted to the league and how things are done here in the SAC.”
Torres is by no means a menacing physical presence on the mound, and most would say that he doesn’t have your typical power-pitcher frame settling in at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds. He is much more Brandon Finnegan than he is Carlos Rodon, but much like both of those two, his arsenal brings quite the punch and makes him an elite strikeout artist.
“My best pitch is a well-located fastball,” Torres said. “I can always rely on my curve ball, and I have a pretty good change up. The pitch I need to work on is my slider a little bit more, I leave it over the plate a little too often.”
Torres entered the season as a NCBWA Preseason All-American and he has not disappointed. In a mere two seasons, he is already Tusculum’s all-time strikeout king. He owns the single-season shutout record with three already this year. He hurled six games in a row with 12 or more strikeouts, as well as three one hitters including one with 16 strikeouts, one with 17 strikeouts and another with 15 strikeouts. The latter gained him the NCBWA National Pitcher of the Week Award earlier this April.
“I’m just trying to do the best I can every time I take the mound and give my team the chance to win,” Torres said of his remarkable run. “You always have those [personal] goals on the side before the season starts and those were definitely some of my goals.”
Sitting at 32-11, Tusculum finds themselves right outside of the nation’s Top 30, receiving votes in both the most recent NCBWA Poll as well as the latest Collegiate Baseball Poll where they are No. 31. They are ranked sixth in the most recent NCBWA Regional Rankings, the highest ranked SAC team, one spot ahead of Catawba, with Newberry coming in tenth in a region dominated buy the GSC and the Conference Carolinas.
The Pioneers are heading back to the SAC tournament with NCAA postseason aspirations. Torres — like last year — is ready for the challenge and for this team to go far into May.
“It’s very exciting,” Torres said of the looming tournament. “I have confidence in my team that we can go very far this year. We have a really good pitching staff. We did last year, too, but I feel like we can go really far this year.
“That’s the goal, that’s why we work hard in the offseason, to make it there and win championships. That’s what this program is all about.”