COLUMBIA, S.C. - Devin Ortiz cemented his spot in Virginia baseball lore in a win-or-go-home game that allowed the Cavaliers to advance to this weekend’s NCAA super regional.
The senior from Nutley, New Jersey, embodies the resiliency the Cavaliers (33-24) have demonstrated during a dramatic turnaround to their season.
The last time Ortiz took the field was in regional play; he threw the first pitch of Virginia’s decisive game against Old Dominion and hit the last one out of the park, setting up a matchup this weekend with Dallas Baptist (40-16) in Columbia, South Carolina.
“This is what I came here to do,” Ortiz said Tuesday after pitching four scoreless innings in his first career start for the Cavaliers, then hitting a walk-off home run to left field in the bottom of the 10th. “Something like today is something you dream about.”
For much of this season, it seemed like a dream that wouldn’t come true.
Like many of Virginia’s upperclassmen, coach Brian O’Connor said Ortiz committed early after the Cavaliers won the 2015 national championship.
But a streak of 14 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament ended in 2018, and they hadn’t been back since, compiling a 75-53 record over the next three seasons.
On a personal level, things hadn’t started out as Ortiz hoped, either.
“He didn’t play much here for two years,” O’Connor said, but Ortiz also bucked the ever-growing trend among many players of transferring when things weren’t going his way.
That perseverance gave the coach confidence in handing him the ball, even though Ortiz had pitched just two innings all season after not pitching at all in the 2020 season.
“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,” O’Connor said.
Recruited as a two-way player who could be in the lineup as a position player and also pitch, Ortiz was hampered this year by a nagging left shoulder injury that eventually caused him to be used exclusively as the designated hitter, batting cleanup.
The change came a few weeks after a team meeting on April 2 in Atlanta that altered the Cavaliers’ trajectory. Players gathered the morning after a 6-5 loss to No. 6 Georgia Tech dropped Virginia to 11-14 overall and just 4-12 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
O’Connor, who pitching coach Drew Dickinson described as “heated and upset” in his postgame talk to the team after the series opener with the Yellow Jackets, revisited his message the next morning, using blunt language to make sure his players understood.
“‘You want to go to the NCAA Tournament, you’ve got to be 18-18’” in the ACC, Dickinson recalled O’Connor telling the team. “`You’ve got to be .500 in this league,’”
The Cavaliers won the last two games with the Yellow Jackets -- Ortiz hit his fourth home run in the series finale -- and won 14 of their remaining 20 ACC games to finish 29-23 overall and 18-18 in league play.
“It’s been a crazy ride, a crazy turnaround,” outfielder Alex Tappen said Friday.
“We’ve been building on this thing,” said O’Connor, in his 18th season at Virginia. “It didn’t happen right away two months ago, but it’s been a slow, steady, consistent climb.”
A loss to South Carolina in the regional opener Friday required Virginia to do something it had never managed in earning six previous super regional berths: win four straight games, a task that stretched the pitching staff to its limit.
O’Connor and Dickinson, however, had been preparing for such a scenario just in case.
“We started getting him bullpen (sessions), especially when he stopped playing defense because of his shoulder,” Dickinson said of Ortiz, who made 18 relief appearances as a sophomore, going 4-0 with a 1.78 earned run average. The coaches also let him pitch in some scrimmages, just to build up his arm strength in the event he would be needed.
Ortiz said he developed butterflies as he saw the situation unfolding in the regional, especially after he’d been named by O’Connor as the starter in the decisive game. On Monday, thunderstorms postponed the game until a 9 a.m. start Tuesday.
“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,” Ortiz said, describing the previous day’s anticipation as “a nightmare.”
The next day, however, turned the nightmare into a dream come true, bringing Ortiz and the Cavaliers two victories away from a return to the College World Series.
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