UC Irvine second baseman Justin Torres enjoyed quite a homecoming.

It was two years ago the San Bruno native was attending the NCAA baseball regionals at Sunken Diamond as a fan. This year, Torres actually played in the Stanford Regional as Irvine advanced to the championship round before falling Monday to the host Cardinal.

Torres anchored the heart of the Anteaters’ batting order, where he slugged two home runs through the team’s five games in the tournament. A transfer from College of San Mateo, it was quite a shift in vantage point for Torres as he rounded the bases, looking up into stands to see his family and friends in attendance after they had not been able to attend games for most of the season due to coronavirus protocols.

“It was a pretty cool experience having my family and friends up in the stands and then crossing home plate, seeing all my teammates fired up,” Torres said. “The whole regional just showed how hard our team worked and fought to the very end.”

Torres has been playing some of his best baseball over the past few years, including a dynamic start in his second season at CSM in 2020. The left-handed hitting second baseman wore out California Community College pitching through 21 games, batting .376 with a .612 slugging percentage, including four home runs, 32 hits and nine stolen bases, all of which led the Bulldogs.

The short season was due to the statewide coronavirus cancelations. But Torres knows from short. When he opted to attend St. Francis-Mountain View, he entered the highly competitive ranks of the West Catholic Athletic League as a 5-3 freshman.

“I was pretty dang short,” Torres said. “I was 5-3 my freshman year and then by my senior year, I was about 5-8, 5-9.”

Torres said throughout his high school years — he played in just 18 varsity games in his career due to missing his junior year with an elbow injury — he never seriously considered playing collegiately. He did plan on attending CSM academically, however, and when he reached out to the coaching staff there, he quickly found a place in the Bulldogs’ dugout.

“Just the belief I had in myself,” Torres said of what kept his baseball career in motion. “I also had the San Mateo coaches who took me in and believed in me and told me the potential I had.”

It wasn’t Torres’s first go-around at Bulldog Stadium though. When he was 9, Torres attended the Preparing Legends summer baseball camp, founded and run my CSM baseball manager Doug Williams. The unique thing about Torres’s game in those early years was he was already switch hitting. That is when Torres got a referral from Williams to a famed Bay Area baseball great for private instruction — former Serra star Gregg Jefferies.

“Gregg has played a pretty big role in my career,” Torres said. “I started hitting with him when I was 8 or 9 years old. He helped me a lot mechanically and mentally, and we still stay in touch to this day.”

Choosing St. Francis

Torres chose between three high schools, including Burlingame and Serra. Ultimately, St. Francis seemed the best fit when his father, Steve, took a new job in Mountain View just five minutes for the campus of the private school.

It was a big leap, considering he was commuting so far to a school where didn’t know anyone. But Torres said it wasn’t long before he settled into the commute and the culture.

“I didn’t know anyone,” Torres said. “It was weird for sure, going into that new area. But I found some good friends who are still friends to this day, and a good group of guys.”

Returning from an elbow injury that cost him his junior year at St. Francis, Torres gave up switch hitting to focus on his left-handed swing, from which he derived more power. In 18 games with the Lancers as a senior in 2018, he glimpsed his potential by slashing .310/.474/.620.

“I got used to [hitting left-handed] pretty quick and, up until this point, I feel I’ve been doing better left on left,” Torres said.

Advancing through college ranks

Being a left-handed hitting second baseman with power has served him well as Torres has ascended the ladder through the college ranks.

As a freshman in 2019 on a CSM team that produced a slew of Division I transfers, Torres solidified himself as a power threat, batting .260 but tying for second on the team with six home runs.

Then after his sophomore year, having been scouted by UC Irvine just prior to the 2020 season being shuttered, he chose to make the Division I leap as a redshirt sophomore.

“I think that was the best choice I ever made,” Torres said.

Irvine manager Ben Orloff had all but lost his voice following the weekend’s Stanford Regional, but still found reserves to comment via telephone on Torres’s importance to the Anteaters’ success.

Of the six Irvine players who earned All-Regional honors for the tournament two of them — Nathan Church and Mike Peabody — hit in front of Torres throughout the five-game series.

“Those guys got a lot of pitches to hit because [pitchers] respected him,” Orloff said. “He’s going to be really important for us again coming back. There’s not a lot of guys that can play second base that can have the impact with the bat he has.”

That’s a long way from two years ago when Torres was a community college player watching the Division I postseason from the stands at Sunken Diamond.

“To be able to live it two years later, it’s a pretty surreal feeling,” Torres said.

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