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How Devin Ortiz rose to the moment to propel UVA to the Super Regionals

Devin Ortiz
Devin Ortiz gets a Gatorade shower from teammates after his walkoff homer sent UVA to the 2021 Super Regionals. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Devin Ortiz probably isn’t an MLB prospect as a hitter, but from what we saw of him Tuesday morning, it would be a surprise if a front office doesn’t take a chance on him on the mound.

Showcasing a mid-90s fastball and a fall-off-the-table curve, Ortiz held ODU in check through four surprising innings, limiting the lineup that led the nation in homers to a first-inning double.

The attention after the 4-3 win was on Ortiz’s walkoff homer in the bottom of the 10th. Nothing is more college baseball than a surprise starting pitcher staying in the game as DH and sending his team to a Super Regional with a homer into the opponent’s bullpen.

He wouldn’t have had the chance in extras if not for what he did to give his team some needed outs as the starting pitcher.

“This is what I came here to do,” Ortiz said. “I wanted to come to Virginia, I wanted to play in these big situations, and I wanted to help my team win.”

Those of us on the outside were shocked, some dismayed, when they saw the news that coach Brian O’Connor had named Ortiz the starter for the regional championship game – not as a knock on Ortiz, but because it seemed from the outside to smack of desperation on the part of O’Connor, a sign that he had no options other than to use a guy who had thrown all of two innings this season.

That’s because we didn’t fully know the mad genius that is Brian O’Connor, who had seen the possibility of needing to use Ortiz in the role a few weeks ago.

“We have been working on his pitching in the middle of the week in scrimmage games, more like one inning at a time, to start to get him back on the mound, all for potentially this kind of moment, where you fall into the loser’s bracket,” O’Connor said.

Last week, Ortiz had been scheduled to throw two innings in a scrimmage, and O’Connor decided after talking with pitching coach Drew Dickinson to stretch Ortiz to a third inning, “and our conversation was, as God is my witness, that, hey, if we fall in the loser’s bracket of this tournament, Devin Ortiz is going to start, and we’re going to need to him to go for five innings, so let’s extend him today and get him prepared for that.”

Ortiz said that extended outing and the possibility of him starting a deciding game in the regional had “kind of been in the back of my head since we’d gotten here.”

“And once I’d kind of seen it all pan out that I might have an opportunity to start, and we won the first game of the championship, um, immediate butterflies, immediate excitement for something that I haven’t done in a while. I love pitching, I just love playing the game, and I was really excited to get back out there,” said Ortiz, who was used a lot out of the UVA bullpen, and quite effectively, back in 2019, going 4-0 with a 1.78 ERA in 18 relief appearances, striking out 38 and walking nine in 35.1 innings, with an opponent batting average of .215.

Monday was a tough day for Ortiz because of the lengthy rain delay that eventually led to a postponement to Tuesday.

“It was just on and off emotions because you don’t know if you’re going to start, if we’re going to play that game,” Ortiz said. “I was looking forward to it from the minute my eyes opened that day. So when I came back to the hotel after last night, I was a little frustrated, because that’s something I was very looking forward to.

“I just kind of reminded myself that maybe it happened for a reason,” Ortiz said. “Maybe I wasn’t going to have it yesterday, maybe I’ll have it today. Or maybe I’ll hit something big or, I don’t know. I was just reminding myself that in the hotel that we didn’t play today because there was a reason behind it. So I woke up today, and I was very excited.”

It helped that the NCAA set the start time for Tuesday at 9 a.m.

“I was like, OK, it’s better that the game’s at nine, because now I don’t have to think about it all day. I can just get into it, because yesterday, it was felt like a nightmare, not knowing if we’re going to play or not, and you’re just trying to stay focused, and your emotions go up and down, the butterflies are in and out. But today, the butterflies weren’t there as much, because I didn’t have time to really think about it. I just kind of woke up, open my eyes, eat breakfast and get ready to compete,” Ortiz said.

O’Connor never second-guessed his decision to go with Ortiz in the win-or-go-home game.

“I know what Devin Ortiz is made of,” O’Connor said. “I’ll never forget going up to his home in New Jersey when he was a senior and sitting down with his family. This is well after he had committed to us. And I got a really good understanding of the background that this guy comes from. And it’s special. He’s tough. He’s been hardened. He’s got wonderful parents. He was raised the right way.

“He didn’t play much here for two years. What you’re seeing in college baseball is a lot of kids decide that maybe they need to change of direction and a different place. He didn’t,” O’Connor said. “Him and I had conversations, many conversations, throughout those two years, and I really believed that he was going to turn the corner in this program. And he has. So first and foremost, we had confidence in him because we knew what’s inside him and what he’s been through.”

Ortiz got off to a bit of a rocky start, relatively speaking. After getting the dangerous Kyle Battle to fly out leading off the top of the first, two-hole hitter Kenny Levari lined a 3-1 pitch down the left field line for a ground-rule double.

That could have easily put doubt in Ortiz’s head, made a guy who had thrown two competitive innings in two years not trust his stuff, start nibbling at the corners, off the corners.

Instead, Ortiz rallied, struck out Carter Trice and then got Andy Garriola to fly out.

His final line: four innings, no runs, one hit, six strikeouts, two walks, 74 pitches, 41 strikes.

“Something like today is something you dream about, coming here as a two-way player, and not really knowing your role for the first couple of years, if you’re going to pitch more, if you’re going to hit more. I just felt like I always had to be ready,” Ortiz said.

O’Connor recalled the pep talk he gave to Ortiz during the scrimmage last week, preparing his guy for a moment that he seemed to foresee was coming.

“I was actually sitting in the dugout, and I was telling Ortiz after that second inning, I said that your legend in this uniform is going to grow, and this is why we need to continue to develop this pitching in and start to keep your pitch count up, because I just have a feeling that at some point, you’re going to impact this team on the mound.

“We didn’t waver at all that Ortiz was going to start, and he was going to get us off to a good start. He deserved that opportunity, and just incredibly proud of him,” O’Connor said.

Story by Chris Graham

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