By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– For the University of Virginia baseball program, the annual Orange and Blue World Series concludes Friday at Disharoon Park.
The fifth and final game of the series, originally scheduled to start at 6 p.m., has been moved to 4 o’clock. About four hours later, up the road in Washington, D.C., the Nationals will face the Astros in the third game of Major League Baseball’s World Series.
Not every UVA player would describe himself as a Nats fan. Devin Ortiz, for example, grew up in northern New Jersey and, in most cases, pulls for the Yankees. Still, Ortiz and his teammates are following the postseason exploits of Washington standouts Ryan Zimmerman and Sean Doolittle with interest.
Zimmerman starred for Virginia, of course, as did Doolittle.
“We look to them as role models,” Ortiz said. “That’s exactly where we all want to be eventually in our lives. That’s the end goal right there, being in the World Series. And if they win it, it’s even better.”
Ortiz, a 6-2, 195-pound junior, was in good spirits in an interview this week at The Dish, and who could blame him? No Cavalier has played better this fall.
In Virginia’s three exhibition games –– against Liberty, East Carolina and the Ontario Blue Jays –– Ortiz hit .583. In the intrasquad Orange and Blue World Series, he’s 6 for 13 with three home runs.
“I feel really comfortable,” Ortiz said. “I feel aggressive at the plate.”
He’s more than a talented hitter. Ortiz excelled on the mound for the Wahoos last season, posting a 4-0 record and 1.78 earned-run average in 18 relief appearances.
“He was one of our top three or four pitchers down the stretch last year, so there’s no question that he’s going to be a really valuable pitcher for us [in 2020],” UVA head coach Brian O’Connor said.
In only 19 at-bats last season, Ortiz collected eight hits, including a home run, for a .421 average. He didn’t fare as well at the plate as a freshman in 2018, when he started 16 games (six in left field, six in center, and four as designated hitter) and hit .167.
Through his first two seasons, Ortiz hasn’t “had a whole lot of opportunities,” O’Connor said, “but he had a really, really good summer where I know he gained a lot of confidence and has worked very, very hard on his swing and his defense. Through this fall, he’s earned some good opportunities going into the spring.
“It just appears to me that he’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s been around two years. He’s seen how’s it done. I’m excited to see him pitch this spring, too, because I know physically he’s a lot stronger than he’s been in his career, and I know that he’s going to make serious contributions both ways for us.”
The Cavaliers finished 32-24 last season. After the final game, the players scattered, with most heading off to summer leagues. Ortiz originally had planned to play in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, but that fell through, as did his attempt to find a spot in another league.
A friend recommended the new Florida Gulf Coast League to Ortiz, who discussed the possibility with Kevin McMullan, UVA’s associate head coach.
“That was the last-minute option,” Ortiz said, “but I just wanted to play. I didn’t care where it was. I just wanted to know that I was going to go to a nice area and get better and work on my craft and play baseball. I loved it.”
For the Bradenton Mafia, Ortiz was the Monday starter but otherwise played in the field. He posted a 1.74 ERA, hit .542 and helped Bradenton capture the inaugural league championship. He also won the league’s home run derby.
After the playoffs ended in Florida, McMullan “gave me a call and asked me if I wanted to go to the Cape, and I said, ‘Sure,’ ” Ortiz said. And so he headed north to the storied Cape Cod League, where he pitched for the Harwich (Mass.) Mariners.
“I played a lot of baseball [this summer],” Ortiz said, smiling.
This fall, he’s split time between third base and first base.
“I did not have him pitch at all this fall, just because he pitched for us last spring and then pitched this summer, along with playing a position,” O’Connor said. “He’ll pitch in a pretty significant role this spring. I just don’t know what it is. That’s going to have a lot to do with what the options are to play him in the field.”
Ortiz said: “I like to hit just as well as I like to pitch. I don’t know which one I prefer more, but just as long as I’m playing baseball, I feel comfortable.”
The Wahoos have a new pitching coach, Drew Dickinson, with whom Ortiz has yet to work extensively.
“But I’m not really worried about that right now,” Ortiz said. “I just want to focus on my role as a position player at the moment. I can’t do anything about pitching. I’ll start to build that connection with Coach Drew and the rest of our bullpen when the spring comes around and I start throwing again.”
Ortiz arrived at UVA in the summer of 2017 expecting, as many recruits do, to earn a significant role on the team as a freshman. That didn’t happen, but not because Ortiz showed any lack of commitment.
“His work ethic is at the highest level,” O’Connor said. “There’s no question about that. He’s the guy after a practice or after a game on a Sunday, when you’re leaving the stadium, he’s out on the field and has the student-manager hitting him ground balls or he’s getting extra swings in the cages.
“You like to see guys reap the benefit of all the work. He’s got the skill set. He certainly has the work ethic, and hopefully he’s able to put it all together.”
Ortiz said his father raised him “to always be the last guy out of the stadium. It goes back to little league. My dad and I would hit after games, we’d field after games or practice, and I just feel like throughout my life I’ve just always done that.
“I love doing it. I love playing baseball and working on my craft, so it’s not like it’s a hassle to get better or to stay after. It’s more just me having fun.”
Even when his career appeared to have stalled, Ortiz said, his belief in himself and the program never wavered.
“I’ve always been determined to work my way through it,” he said. “I’ve chosen Virginia for the program, the baseball program they have here, and the education. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. There’s nowhere else better.”
As a philosophy major, he’s challenged himself academically at UVA. “I like how interesting it is, how it can make you really think,” said Ortiz, who recently wrote a paper about the Greek philosopher Epicurus’ beliefs on death.
Away from the classroom, he relishes every opportunity to play baseball. In the fall, those opportunities come less frequently, which adds to the significance of Orange and Blue World Series for the players.
“It’s definitely super competitive in the locker room between the guys,” Ortiz said. “It definitely is a time for players to prove themselves to coaches, and there’s only so much you can prove in practice.
“We have five games in the Orange and Blue, and we play three exhibition games, so you’re only getting eight games to really prove yourself before the spring comes around.”
The Cavaliers are heading into their 17th season under O’Connor. After making 14 straight appearances in the NCAA tournament, with four trips to the College World Series and one national title, Virginia didn’t advance past the ACC tourney in 2018 or 2019.
“Looking at our team this fall, I feel like we’ve improved so much,” Ortiz said, “and I think this is the team to get us out of the two-year slump that we’ve been in.
“I don’t think any of us came here to not make it into a regional and not make it to Omaha. So I think that’s the goal for everybody, and the team we have had is capable of doing it.”
Exactly how Ortiz figures into UVA’s 2020 plans is still to be determined, but expect to see him at the plate as well as on the mound.
“There’s no question,” O’Connor said. “He’s earned that through his consistent production this fall. If he comes back in the preseason and is having consistent quality at-bats like he has this fall, he’ll be a big addition to our lineup.”
Ortiz said: “I’ve always been a two-way player my whole life, and I’ve never figured out which one I’m really better at. I’ve always lived by the motto that until the day someone tells me that I can’t do one or the other, then I’m going to continue to try to do both.”