When the 2018 high school baseball season began, Julio Ortiz found himself in a peculiar predicament.
The Harrison High School senior, known for being the ace of the Blue Tide baseball pitching staff for each of the previous two seasons, was unable to pitch this season due to a strained UCL ligament in his elbow.
A tear of such ligament would require major reconstructive surgery and Ortiz would have been forced to miss his entire senior season. So a strain wasn’t as severe, but it meant one thing. Ortiz was not going to be able to pitch until the ligament healed properly.
“It was a little frustrating,” Ortiz said. “I wanted to be able to help the team.”
“We are looking to get him back,” said Harrison head coach Jairo Mendez.
Ortiz might not have been able to take the mound for the Blue Tide, but the injury didn’t mean he couldn’t play. Ortiz manned his position in centerfield and was set to continue his place as the No. 3 hitter in the powerful Blue Tide lineup.
“I knew I could play the field and I was able to throw from the outfield,” Ortiz said. “It was just best to stay away from pitching for now. I want to come back, but I thought I was always able to do more at the plate.”
As the season began, Ortiz was not able to hit the way he normally does. After all, Ortiz hit a robust .435 with four homers and 19 RBI last season as a junior.
“He struggled a bit in the beginning of the season,” Mendez said. “It was a little cold out, so that didn’t help.”
Mendez then decided to make a lineup change.
“We put Julio in the leadoff spot,” Mendez said. “We thought he would be able to work the count better and get more fastballs to hit batting leadoff. With his speed, he could get on bases and steal more bases.”
Ortiz liked the switch.
“I can focus on my speed a lot,” Ortiz said. “I think it was a very smart decision to move me up. It’s easier for me to score when I’m on base more and stealing bases. I think I’m more focused batting leadoff. It’s been very helpful. I’m more patient at the plate and not chasing after pitches.”
Over the last five games, Ortiz has flourished in the leadoff spot. He had three hits, including a home run, and scored three runs in a win over Dickinson. He also had two hits in two games and has stolen two bases in each of the last four contests. He’s had nine hits in his last 18 at-bats, an even .500 during that span.
With a 4-2 win over Linden Saturday, the Blue Tide has improved to a 5-5 record.
For his efforts, Ortiz has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Mendez loves what Ortiz is bringing to the table lately.
“He’s hitting the ball real well now and making more solid contact,” Mendez said. “With the warm weather coming, we just hope it continues and maybe even better. He’s a very strong kid. During his offseason workouts, he was a maniac. He puts in the hard work and it obviously shows.”
Ortiz spent most of the offseason working and training at Bierman’s Dojo in Wayne, under the guidance of former Pittsburgh Pirates organization player Mike Fransoso, who played at the University of Maine and was recently with the Rockland Boulders of independent baseball.
“I knew that some major leaguers have gone there,” Ortiz said. “So I wanted to train with the best. I worked on my mechanics, getting the barrel of the bat out and staying back. I’ve been able to drive the ball into the gaps.”
Ortiz was asked about the workouts.
“They’re pretty intense,” Ortiz said. “I go there about six, maybe seven times a week. It’s definitely worth it. I absolutely feel better. I feel like I’m hitting the ball very hard. The increased bat speed has helped. I worked very hard this offseason, harder than ever. It’s good to see the results. I do everything there, running, hitting, throwing, weight training.”
Mendez has definitely seen the improvement.
“He eats and sleeps baseball,” Mendez said. “He loves the game. It’s all he does. He goes to camps, clinics and trains. The main thing is that he stays healthy. He’s the type of player that the others feed off him.”
“I’m a lot more focused from now on,” Ortiz said. “It’s my senior year. I want to make it the most successful year we’ve had. I want to play with my teammates and win as a team. I love playing the outfield. I take the position very seriously. I try to cover as much ground as I can.”
Mendez said that Ortiz’s play in centerfield sometimes gets overlooked.
“But he made a play (against Linden) where he had to run about 20 yards to get to the ball and make the catch,” Mendez said. “He laid out and caught it. It was a great play.”
The Blue Tide has a solid outfield pair in Dustin Huseinovic in left and Ortiz in center.
“It’s great to have the two of them out there,” Mendez said.
When Ortiz was a youngster, he was involved in martial arts, but then got into boxing workouts with his father, also named Julio.
“My Dad knows a lot about boxing,” Ortiz said. “It’s good to train with him.”
Ortiz first committed to St. Peter’s University, but has now decided to attend Lehigh Carbon Community College, a top-ranked junior college in Schnecksville, Pa.
Ortiz hopes to become a commercial pilot someday and Lehigh Carbon offers that program.
“I love traveling and I want to help people,” Ortiz said of becoming a pilot. “I also loved geography as a kid.”
Mendez is glad to have Ortiz in whatever capacity he has.
“He’s a veteran guy,” Mendez said. “He’s been with us for all four years. He’s doing what I expected of him.”
And as for pitching?
“We hope to get him back on the hill,” said Mendez, a former pitcher in his days at Kearny High and later Montclair State. “We’ve had others who stepped up so far.”
But no one who won six games as a sophomore and four more last year as a junior.
“I’m not dwelling on it,” Ortiz said. “I want to get back to pitching, but the elbow is holding me back. We’re getting close, so we’ll see.”
Harrison senior outfielder/pitcher Julio Ortiz. Photo by Jim Hague