WASHINGTON — Not once, not twice, but three times during Sunday afternoon’s rubber match did Rafael Ortega get to jog around the bases, bringing him to four home runs in his last two games. Since the All-Star break, the outfielder has had more steady playing time, and he has been taking advantage of it with a hot streak.
Ortega single-handedly kept the Cubs in the series finale by tying a franchise record with three homers in one game, though they were eventually walked off in a 6-5 loss at Nationals Park.
The outfielder had just two home runs in 47 games this year entering the three-game series with the Nationals, but with Ian Happ struggling, manager David Ross wanted to try something different at leadoff.
“He’s on fire,” said Ross. “He’s been such a catalyst at the top [of the lineup] for us since moving up there. He’s a really big bat off the bench, he’s locked in. I think he’s on fire. Big, big problem [at the] top of our lineup for other teams. It’s nice.”
In his first at-bat of the series finale, Ortega smacked a 391-foot home run, the first leadoff homer of his career. Thus began the unofficial home run derby at Nationals Park.
The Cubs’ offense was stuck trying to play catch-up after starting pitcher Adbert Alzolay gave up four runs in the third and fourth frames, but luckily for Chicago, Ortega had three more at-bats. The outfielder said he wasn’t thinking about hitting a home run or breaking any records when he was at the plate. He just wanted to do everything he could to put his team in a position to win by giving his max effort.
After hitting a single a mere 105.3 mph off his bat in the top of the third inning, Ortega stepped into the batter’s box again in the sixth ready to do damage. His second home run of the day sailed over the right-field wall, bringing in Andrew Romine ahead of him.
When the tying run came up to the plate, the Nationals decided to pitch to Ortega, a decision they would soon regret. After working a full count, the outfielder was gifted a changeup right down the middle. His two-run shot tied the game up at 5-5, though the Cubs’ bullpen couldn’t hold on to force extra innings after Manuel Rodríguez allowed a walk-off homer to Yadiel Hernandez in the bottom of the ninth.
Prior to this series in Washington, Ortega had never hit a leadoff home run in the Majors, homered in back-to-back games or hit more than four home runs in a season. By the end of Sunday’s matchup, he had accomplished all three. Ross knows that stars rise to the occasion and step up, and he hopes that this display of power is proof of star potential for his outfielder.
“I think he’s just getting comfortable and understanding,” said Ross on Ortega’s new role in the leadoff spot. “He didn’t have a lot of runs early on coming off the bench in the role he was in. … He’s been hitting the ball hard, it’s just been on a line, [but] lately he’s getting [it] in the air and he’s seeing it carry.”
It’s no secret what happened to this Cubs lineup leading up to the Trade Deadline. Ortega knows that it is going to take a while to fill the gap that Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez left. But Chicago’s new leadoff hitter is realistic in his approach — he just wants to do his best and help elevate his team however he can.
“[It was] sad to see those guys go, especially after what they did,” said Ortega. “They brought a championship to the city, right? So, something that is tough to emulate. It’s something that we’re going to try and do our best to fill in those shoes, those roles. We have a lot of young guys, [and] we’re going to try to do our best and we’re going to try to make fans feel proud and happy from what we’re doing out on the field.”