During the playoff run that took the Hickory Crawdads to the 2015 South Atlantic League championship, circumstances put first rounders Luis Ortiz and Dillon Tate into the bullpen as part of a bridge crew between consistent strong starting pitching and closer Scott Williams.
Ortiz had missed much of the second half with a shoulder injury, but then returned the final week of the regular season to allow one hit over three innings. Tate was held to short appearances after a heavy workload in college prior to being drafted by the Texas Rangers.
In game two of the Northern Division series, Tate threw two scoreless innings with two Ks. One night later with Hickory holding a 1-0 lead in the decisive game three, Ortiz threw two perfect innings, striking out four to set up Williams to close out the series.
Three nights later, Ortiz closed out his 2015 season in game two of the championship series. Pitching the seventh and eighth innings, Ortiz allowed one hit and fanned three. Tate pitched a scoreless inning in game three to help Hickory finish the 3-0 series sweep.
“The playoff atmosphere, it’s going to happen,” said Ortiz looking back at his performance in the 2015 Sally League playoffs. “It’s very tense at the moment, so basically you try to get it and get it done.”
Performances aside, baseball – especially minor league baseball – is a sport where things change fast and for Ortiz those changes came out of nowhere. Nearly eleven months after their playoff heroics, Ortiz and Tate were both traded on the same day in separate deals. Tate struggled with control issues and was sent to the New York Yankees for Carlos Beltran. Ortiz, along with another former first rounder, 2013-2014 Crawdads outfielder Lewis Brinson, was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers as part of a deal that brought catcher Jonathan Lucroy to Texas.
“I was sitting in the training room in Frisco (AA club of the Rangers),” recalled Ortiz on learning of the trade. “I had a bullpen that day. It was me, Brinson and a couple of other guys in there. I was getting ready to go outside and (pitching coach) Brian Shouse comes up to me and tells me, ‘We’re not going to go out there until the trade’s over.’
“So, I kind of knew there was something going on. From right there, I just waited for my name to be called. Brinson already knew. So, it was basically a matter of time when it was going to happen.”
Ortiz had a strong start to the 2016 season, pitching in the ballpark of doom at High-A High Desert in the California League. The ballpark, located in Adelanto, CA, was a hitter’s paradise with its high altitude, arid conditions and favorable wins. But with his family located within a short drive in Sanger, CA, Ortiz adapted nicely to the conditions, posting a 2.60 ERA and fanning 28 in 27.2 innings.
“It was awesome being in California and being a couple of hours from home,” Ortiz said of his Cal League stint. “I had family come out all the time and it was amazing. I already knew how to pitch in California. Every talks about High Desert. ‘High Desert’s this.’ If you can pitch, you can pitch. If you can pitch straight out, you can pitch there.”
After seven appearances (six starts), Ortiz got a promotion to AA Frisco, where the change of scenery and tougher hitters found Ortiz looking for answers.
“When I got to AA, it was basically knowing how to pitch to hitters,” said Ortiz, who posted a 4.08 ERA over 39.2 innings with a .296 OBA. “I struggled with Texas at AA. I struggled and I struggled. I know you’re going to have your downfalls, but (you’re) learning from it.”
His final outing with Frisco was a benign two-inning start during which he allowed a one run on two hits and K’d four on just 34 pitches. Three days later, he was a Milwaukee Brewer and a surprised Ortiz struggled to make sense of what was happening.
“My reaction was basically like everyone else that got traded,” recalled Ortiz. “I just thought I had a good start. At first I was thinking, ‘What did I do wrong?’… Now it’s a new start for me and a better opportunity for me.”
Ortiz has seized that opportunity with the Brewers and it started soon after joining their AA team at Biloxi. He posted a 1.93 ERA over 23. 1 innings, though his WHIP took a hit a 1.54.
In getting a chance to speak with Ortiz last week, he’s matured physically since he was a Crawdad. He now sports facial hair that his 19-year-old baby face wouldn’t support during that 2015 playoff mastery. Ortiz also has a one-year-old son named Santiago, in honor of Luis’s late grandfather, who played a huge role in his life growing up.
With growing maturity under his belt, Ortiz also sees the opportunities of bigger things ahead, some of what was made possible by the trade.
“Texas developed me very well and now they gave me an opportunity with a new team, the Milwaukee Brewers,” said Ortiz. “I take it as a new start. Right now, I’m loving it.”