Ortega brings lively fastball to MLB debut

September 9th, 2021

SAN DIEGO -- It was a tough spot for right-handed reliever to make his Major League debut, but he got out of a jam in the sixth inning and threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings in the Angels’ 8-5 loss on Wednesday night at Petco Park.

Ortega, who had his contract selected from Triple-A Salt Lake on Sept. 1, waited a week before finally getting into a game. He came in with the Angels trailing by seven runs but was thrown right into the fire, as the Padres had runners at second and third with two outs. Ortega struck out Wil Myers to strand both runners, getting his first out via the strikeout on a 3-2 fastball that Myers looked at for a called third strike.

"It was a fantastic feeling,” Ortega said through an interpreter. “I had the count 3-2, and I gave it all I had. I had been preparing for my name to be called. It was a beautiful night for me."

Ortega came back out for the seventh and got Adam Frazier to ground out on a 97.1 mph fastball before giving up a single to Victor Caratini on an 0-2 heater at the top of the zone. But Ortega bounced back by getting Jurickson Profar to ground into a 3-6-3 double play on a 96.1 mph fastball to end the inning.

Of Ortega’s 17 pitches, 10 were four-seamers. They averaged 97.3 mph.

Angels manager Joe Maddon's first word to describe Ortega was "wow," and he liked the way the rookie carried himself when Maddon handed the ball over to him at the mound.

"I told [pitching coach Matt] Wise, ‘He's going to be OK,’ and he was OK," Maddon said. "I know he's had control problems in the past, but not tonight. I mean, he had a dynamic curveball and a big fastball. He's not a tall guy, but he's very focused out there. He was outstanding."

It was an interesting road to the big leagues for the 24-year-old Ortega, who is ranked as the club's No. 14 prospect by MLB Pipeline. He's the epitome of a late bloomer, as the Dominican Republic native didn't sign until he was already 18 years old. And he received just $10,000 during the 2014-15 signing period.

Ortega pitched in rookie ball in 2015 and '16 but missed the 2017 season because of a back injury. He began to appear on the radar in '19, when he had a 4.14 ERA with 135 strikeouts in 111 innings across Double-A Mobile and Class A Advanced Inland Empire. While pitching in the California League, he had a 3.34 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 94 1/3 innings. Only top prospects MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patiño had higher strikeout rates than him in the Cal League that year.

After not pitching in the Minors in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and being unselected in the Rule 5 Draft, Ortega was assigned to Double-A to open this season and moved to relief after previously being a starter. He had a 6.16 ERA but struck out 46 batters over 30 2/3 innings and earned a promotion to Triple-A Salt Lake in late July. He fared better at that level, posting a 3.75 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 12 innings.

Ortega will need to work on his control going forward but he could blossom into a bullpen piece for the Angels in the coming years. He also has shown the ability to go multiple innings, which is something the organization values.

"In the Minor Leagues, I was just always ready whenever my name was called,” Ortega said. “To be able to come up and help the team, I'm very grateful to them for making this a reality."