At 9:06 a.m. Tuesday, Virginia senior Devin Ortiz threw the opening pitch of Game 7 of the 2021 Columbia Regional in the NCAA Tournament, a 93 MPH fastball that was high and away to Old Dominion’s leadoff hitter Kyle Battle. A little more than four hours later, Ortiz smacked the last pitch of the region, a 92 MPH, letter-high fastball over the wall in left center to secure the final spot in the Super Regionals.
UVA took down 11th-seeded ODU, 4-3, with that walk-off swing and Ortiz knew it the second it left his bat.
“This one felt really good and immediately I knew it was going to go out,” Ortiz said. He added that on previous home runs he typically runs hard out of the box but this one was different. “When I hit it, I couldn’t control my emotions. I knew it was gone and I was so happy and excited to see my teammates cheering.”
If etching his name alongside the likes of Chris Taylor, whose walk-off single against UC-Irvine sent the Hoos to their second College World Series in 2011, and Kevin Doherty, whose tie-breaking RBI double with one out against Southern California in the top of the 11th sparked a five-run inning and sent the Hoos to the Super Regionals in 2014, wasn’t enough, Ortiz also tossed four shutout innings, fanned six, and walked two while allowing just one hit.
Recovering from a shoulder injury, Ortiz had only pitched two innings this season and his last start was in high school in 2017. Nonetheless, the New Jersey native got the call Tuesday and coach Brian O’Connor said he did not disappoint.
“It’s tournaments like these, it’s postseason time where players emerge and step forward to help their team accomplish something great,” O’Connor noted. “Two days ago, we had numerous pitchers do that and today, with Ortiz and everybody that came out of the bullpen, and certainly Ortiz on the mound and at the plate to win it. I’m so happy to see our guys experience a regional championship.”
Virginia’s 18-year skipper was aware of what Ortiz is capable of on the mound. He made 18 relief appearances in 2019, going 4-0 with a 1.78 ERA in 35.1 innings pitching out of the bullpen. He didn’t allow a run in his first six appearances of 2019 and finished the season without allowing an earned run in his final 19.1 innings. He recreated that stinginess in his first career start on an elimination stage.
“I know what Devin Ortiz is made of,” O’Connor said. “He’s tough, he’s been hardened, he’s got wonderful parents and he was raised the right way. So, we had confidence in him because we know what’s inside him and what he’s been through.”
Ortiz’s start in the regional finale continued a string of outstanding and somewhat unexpected pitching performances during the Columbia Regional. Matt Wyatt hurled five scoreless against South Carolina on Sunday afternoon, sitting down eight via the strikeout and setting the Hoos up for their 3-2 win. Saturday night, Griff McGarry and Brandon Neeck combine to hold ODU to three runs on five hits while striking out 24 in UVA’s 8-3 win. That night’s win forced Tuesday’s elimination game.
O’Connor said these latest performances by guys like Wyatt, McGarry, Neeck, and Ortiz is a tribute to pitching coach Drew Dickinson and the depth he is developing at Virginia.
“The quality of the depth of this pitching staff is the best that we’ve had,” O’Connor said. “Since Drew Dickinson took our pitching coach job, he’s talked to me so much about that. About using guys in certain roles and developing the depth of our staff. He was right and it played out this weekend.”
While a piece of that developing pitching depth, Ortiz is also characteristic of Virginia’s emerging offense.
On April 1, Virginia was hitting .226 as a team with a .322 slugging percentage and a .317 on-base percentage. The Hoos were averaging 4.58 runs per game and averaged just 2.12 extra base hits per outing. In the last 34 games, however, UVA’s batting average is up .38, slugging is now at .388, and on-base percentage has improved to .354. Extra base hits have gone up 30% per game, including home runs which jumped from .42 per game to 1.27. Runs per game also rose to 6.63, a 31% increase.
O’Connor said one of the keys to Virginia’s offensive ascendance is keeping the pressure on opposing pitchers and defenses.
“We talk about extending leads,” O’Connor said. “You get ahead, you’ve got to tack on in the middle and late innings because anything can happen. [In a regional], you’re talking about ending people’s season so when you have opportunities, you have to cash in on them.”
Ortiz was a major cog in UVA’s offense all weekend. He scored the tying run in the sixth inning against Jacksonville and his RBI single in the bottom of the eighth gave the Hoos their 13th run. His RBI single in the first inning versus South Carolina on Sunday staked Virginia to an early 1-0 lead. His 2-run homer in the Sunday nightcap with Old Dominion extended UVA’s lead to 4-0. He finished the region round 7-21 (.333) with 2 home runs and a team-best 6 RBI. He was named the Most Outstanding Player in the region.
“I think it’s very important” Ortiz said of the offense and defense playing complementary baseball with its pitchers. “It’s simply playing baseball, playing it the way we know how.”
In a preview of coming attractions Tuesday, with 2 outs and runners on first and second in the eighth inning, Ortiz turned on a high-and-tight fastball that almost sailed out of Founders Park. That blast seemed to rattle Monarch closer Noah Dean, who promptly tossed three straight balls, the final two sailing over the head of the catcher. That allowed Virginia’s base runners to each take an extra base twice and Zack Gelof scored on the second wild pitch to tie the game at 3-3.
Ortiz did did not miss in his next at-bat against Aaron Holiday.
Ortiz’s arm did not miss much either. While his strike percentage was a little low, he allowed just one hit and the four base runners that reached base (2 BB, 1 HBP, 1 double) were all left stranded. The Cavaliers had prepared for the moment.
Since he hurt his non-throwing shoulder earlier this season, the Virginia staff has been working with Ortiz pitching in the middle of the week intrasquad scrimmage games. O’Connor said they told Ortiz: “We need to continue to develop this pitching and keep your pitch count up. I just have a feeling that at some point you’re going to impact this team on the mound.”
The staff continued to extend his workouts and pitch counts heading into the regional.
“Last Tuesday, he was scheduled to throw two innings in our scrimmage, and he was throwing so well that Coach Drew and I talked about extending him to a third inning,” O’Connor said. “Our conversation was, as God is my witness, that, ‘if we fall in the loser’s bracket of this tournament, Devin Ortiz is going to start, and we’re going to need him to go four or five innings.’”
Dickinson relayed to Ortiz that if the Hoos went to a game five in a regional, he would likely get the start. So, the start was not a surprise.
“It’s kind of been in the back of my head since we got here,” Ortiz said. :Once I saw it all pan out that I might have an opportunity to start, and we won the first game of the championship [with ODU], I immediately had butterflies and immediate excitement for something I hadn’t done in a while. I was looking forward from the minute my eyes opened [Monday].”
“I love pitching,” he added. “I love playing the game and I was real excited to get back out there. Then [Monday], we had that rain delay, and it was on and off again emotions, and you don’t even know if you’re going to play that game.”
When he got back to the hotel Monday night, Ortiz admitted that he was frustrated because he had been looking forward to the opportunity. But in typical Ortiz fashion, the philosophy major took a mature, introspective approach to the situation.
“I just kind of reminded myself that maybe it happened for a reason; maybe I wasn’t going to have it yesterday, maybe I’ll have it today. Maybe I’ll hit something big,” he said. “I was reminding myself of that in the hotel that there was a reason behind it.”
Ortiz then capitalized on the moment. Securing his place among special Virginia baseball moments, Ortiz called being recognized with players like Taylor, Kenny Towns, Josh Sborz, Adam Haseley, Steven Proscia, and Nathan Kirby along with many others “an honor.”
“This program and its legacy are something like no other and this is what I came here to do,” he said. “I wanted to play at Virginia. I wanted to play in these big situations and most important, I wanted to help my team win. Today is something you dream about.”
For Ortiz and the entire 2021 Virginia baseball team, that dream rolls on to the Super Region this weekend.