The Return of Russ Ortiz?
by Richard Van Zandt,
April 14, 2007

A lot has been made of how Russ Ortiz spent his off-season. It’s not often after all that a 32-year-old, established major league veteran of nine major league seasons spends his winter playing baseball in Puerto Rico; especially one that was raised in California and who once signed a four-year, $33 million contract.

However this Russ Ortiz isn’t the same Russ Ortiz who once finished fourth in the Cy Young voting or the one that actually signed that megabucks deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks. This Russ Ortiz has been to the bottom of the abyss and stared at the end of his career in the face. Now however, thanks to the way he spent his winter (and with a bit of help from pitching Guru Leo Mazzone) Ortiz may actually have returned from the depths of the chasm.

When Ortiz signed with the D’Backs in December of 2004, he brought to the desert a career record of 103-60. That’s a .631 winning percentage. However Ortiz pitched so poorly in Arizona that last June, despite still being owed $22.5 million, he was cut loose after pitching just 137.2 innings and making only 28 starts in barely over a season and a half. Ortiz’ record with the Diamondbacks was just 5-16 and his ERA was 6.99. He allowed nearly 2 runners per inning. That’s not exactly what you’d call getting your money’s worth.

Ortiz resurfaced just a few days later with the Baltimore Orioles who re-united him with his pitching coach from his days in Atlanta. However he was as bad or worse with the Birds (0-3, 8.48 ERA, 1.91 WHIP) and was quickly dropped from the rotation. Then following the season, he was let go once again. Yet it was exactly this time in Baltimore that Ortiz now credits for resurrecting his career.

Ortiz has since said that Mazzone helped him figure out that his problem stemmed from how the ball was coming out of his glove. Though the immediate results didn’t show it, Ortiz felt he had the answer and, not wanting to lose what he had just found, he decided to continue to work on his game and mechanics by taking the unusual step of pitching in the Puerto Rican Winter League.

The Giants, needing a fifth starter, took a look at their former ace and liked what they saw. Signed for the major league minimum (Arizona is on the hook for another $8.5 million this year), Ortiz came to camp as the odds-on favorite to win the final spot in the rotation behind Noah Lowry, Matt Morris, Matt Cain and of course, Barry Zito. After allowing just 6 earned runs and only 18 base runners in 18 innings (3.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP), it was confirmed that he had beaten out Brad Hennessey, Jonathan Sanchez and Tim Lincecum for the job. Russ was now officially on the road back from oblivion.

An awful lot of skepticism followed Ortiz’ signing but on Friday night in Pittsburgh, the pitcher many had given up for dead, took perhaps the biggest step of his major league career by tossing his finest game since September of 2004. Oh sure his line score won’t prove it: 8.2 innings, 10 hits, 5 runs, a home run and 121 pitches. I mean yeah he pitched deep into the game, but look at all the hits and runs right? Here though we have proof that line scores can be deceptive. Ortiz, making his second start in his second stint with the Giants, dominated the Pirates offense for most of the evening.

His night got off to a shaky start though when he allowed 2 runs on 2 hits and one walk in the home half of the 1st after his teammates had already staked him to a 5-run lead. After that however, it was lights out until the 9th. From the second inning through the eighth, Ortiz cruised, allowing no runs on 5 hits without walking a batter and throwing 62 of his 75 pitches for strikes.

Working quickly and effectively with an 8-2 lead – backed by two Barry Bonds home runs – Ortiz sailed through the 5th and 6th innings while tossing just 10 pitches combined. He entered the 9th inning with a 6-run lead while having thrown just 97 pitches (72 strikes) on the night. You can rest assured that there wasn’t a Giants fan to be found who didn’t want to see Ortiz finish what he’d started.

After getting the first out quickly on two pitches, Pirate catcher Ronny Paulino jumped out in front of the count 2-0 before Ortiz battled back to even it up. Paulino though won the war by lining a single to center. Ortiz then retired Jose Bautista for the second out but not before the infielder had battled him for 7 more pitches. Nate McLouth then worked the count full before grounding a seeing-eye basehit to right, once again on the 7th pitch of the at bat.

There were now two runners on and two men out in the bottom of the ninth and manager Bruce Bochy was on his way to the mound. Given the relatively safe buffer the team had however, Bochy chose not to take the ball from Ortiz (are you listening Dusty?) and instead showed confidence in his pitcher by giving him the chance to finish what he’d started.

It was fairly obvious at this point that Ortiz had almost nothing left in the tank. 5 of his last 10 pitches had been balls and he’d thrown 14 pitches to the last two batters alone. On the other hand he had the 6-run lead and with one out left to get, he was facing Chris Duffy, who to that point had exactly 3 home runs in 478 career at bats. What were the odds? There was an awful lot to be gained by letting Ortiz close this out.

As you already know Ortiz allowed 5 runs on 10 hits in 8 2/3 innings, and if you didn’t know before then by now I’m sure you can guess that Duffy, after getting ahead in the count 2-0, hit Ortiz’ final pitch of the evening deep into the Pittsburgh night for a three-run home run.

Ok, so Boch let him go one batter too many. But as I said, there isn’t a Giants fan to be found that didn’t want to see him get that final out. Everyone who proudly sports the black and orange wanted Bochy to leave him in there; to just give him the chance. No, it didn’t turn out the way we’d all hoped. But they did have that buffer and Bochy was out of the dugout before Duffy crossed home plate, calling on Vinnie Chulk to get the final out and to preserve Ortiz’ first win since August 29, 2005. Certainly this wasn’t on the scale of Grady Little and Pedro Martinez.

Two starts into his second stint with the team, Ortiz has a 5.27 ERA. That is a number though that doesn’t accurately reflect how well he has pitched. On Friday night in Pittsburgh, Russ Ortiz pitched like the Russ Ortiz who in a six-year span won 99 games with a .638 winning percentage rather than the Russ Ortiz who until Friday night had lost 20-of-his-last-25 decisions.

Does that mean this is what the team can expect from him from now on? Well that might be a bit of a stretch. Certainly it’s far too soon to definitively say if Russ has returned to the form that helped him average nearly 17 wins a year for over half a decade. But on this Friday night in Pittsburgh, he gave all Giants fans a tantalizing taste of what they all hope is the grand return of Russ Ortiz.

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Richard resides in San Francisco, California and can be reached at