Rafael Ortega has considered retiring from baseball before.
Now one of the Cubs’ hottest hitters, Ortega was playing in the Venezuelan Winter League a little under a decade ago when he started questioning his future in the sport.
“I would get feedback like, ‘You’re not a prospect anymore,’ or ‘you’re not as young,’” Ortega told NBC Sports Chicago, through team interpreter Will Nadal.
A trade to another team in Venezuela gave Ortega a fresh start, which years later ended up benefitting the Cubs.
On Saturday, Ortega scored both the Cubs’ first run and the go-ahead run in an eventual 5-4 loss at Miami on Saturday. His continuous presence on the base paths is nothing new. Ortega is batting .414 since the All-Star break, when he began to get more regular playing time. As the Cubs search for a way out of their current 10-game losing streak, Ortega's bat will likely be part of the solution.
“He's done nothing but rake,” Cubs manager David Ross said this week. “And it doesn't matter what caliber pitcher’s on the mound, he gives you a quality at bat. … This is an opportunity he's grabbed, which has really great for him, great for us.”
To understand just how ready Ortega was to take advantage of this kind of opportunity, first look at his winding path to the Cubs.
Ortega, 30, made his MLB debut in 2012, called up from Single-A. He hadn’t been in spring training that season, so his new teammates and coaches didn’t know who he was when he arrived in the clubhouse.
“They just thought I was a clubbie,” Ortega said with a smile.
They all had a good laugh when they learned of their error, embracing Ortega in their arms, welcoming him to the show.
“The clubhouse was really good with me,” Ortega said. “At that time, there was Todd Helton and Jason Giambi. Imagine that. It was a while ago.”
Ortega played in two games with the Rockies that season and then didn’t make another big-league appearance until 2016.
Ortega’s career has been on that kind of yoyo string for years, up and down from the minors to the majors and back again, fighting to stick. His 205 major-league games include stops in Anaheim, Miami, Atlanta and of course Chicago.
“I've thought to myself, ‘Can I really play baseball at the highest level?’” Ortega said. “But I think it all goes back to having that support system. My family has been there the whole time. They've helped me. And then that’s, in turn, helped to have that attitude to just keep focus and seize the opportunity that I have right now with the team.”
Last November, Ortega signed with the Cubs as a free agent. They called him up to the major-league squad in late May, and he’s been with the team since. At first, Ortega filled a bench role. Then, the Cubs traded left fielder Joc Pederson to the Braves over the All-Star break.
“It’s an opportunity for a guy like Ian Happ to step up, or Rafi Ortega or Jake Marisnick,” Ross said at the time. “Another outfielder to even have a chance to be better than Joc was for us. I really believe that.”
Within a week Ortega had not only claimed center field, but he had slid into Pederson’s vacated spot at the top of the batting order.
Ortega kicked off the month of August by etching his name into Cubs record books, tying a franchise best when he hit three home runs in the Cubs’ 6-5 loss at Washington.
“I think it's just really been the attitude that I've had throughout the whole process,” Ortega said when asked about the hot streak he’s on. “Even through the ups and the downs, I've just stayed the course mentally.”