WASHINGTON — Nobody’s asking Rafael Ortega (or anyone else) to replace Kris Bryant.
But when the journeyman outfielder on Sunday equaled a franchise record shared by Bryant, hitting three homers in a 6-5 loss to the Nationals, he at least raised the question of how he might fit into the team’s plans moving forward without Bryant and the rest of the championship core traded away in recent days — if not exactly a good answer.
Whether a 30-year-old hitter who’s been waived or released the last eight consecutive offseasons fits anyone’s image of a key part of the plans for the Cubs’ next competitive wave, Ortega certainly is taking advantage of an opportunity to play like he never has in his career.
“That opportunity never ends,” said manager David Ross, who has made Ortega an increasingly common part of his lineup in recent weeks — with the playing time only expected to rise from here with the recent departures and the hot bat.
“You’ve got some guys that are going to get regular play now, and they’ve got an opportunity to make a name for themselves,” Ross added. “But I feel like Raffy in particular, and [Patrick] Wisdom in particular, have already really made an impression, at least on me.”
Whatever Ortega’s role might be beyond this season, he assured a place in Cubs history in becoming the 43rd Cub to hit three homers in a game, first since Bryant in 2019 at the same ballpark and first lefty hitter since Brant Brown in 1998.
“It’s no secret what happened at the trade deadline, and it’s sad to see those guys go, especially after what those guys did,” Ortega said through team interpreter Will Nadal. “It was something really incredible. They brought a championship to the city.
“That’s something that’s tough to emulate,” he said. “It’s something we’re going to try to do our best to fill in those shoes and those roles. We have a lot of young guys who are going to try to do our best, and we’re going to try to make fans feel proud and happy for what we’re doing out on the field.”
Ortega doubled his season home run total with his three on Sunday — also matching in one day his career total in 143 games before this season.
For a guy who’s on his fifth team in parts of five major-league seasons, thinking too far ahead about his role with anybody is a reach. But for what it might be worth, he likes the idea of sticking around longer than one season.
And the way he’s playing that part might not be a reach for a team that figures to have plenty of use for a veteran, left-handed bat to at least bridge the transition to whatever comes next.
“There’s some things that you can’t really predict, with the front office and what decisions they might make,” said Ortega, whose first homer Sunday led off the game and last one, in the eighth, tied it. “All I can control is coming to the field every day, giving my best, trying to do my best to help the team win.
“I would love to be part of it in the future and long-term plan, but it’s something that’s going to have to play out by itself, and I’ll continue to do my best.”