Arizona's Bryce Ortega: The Comeback Kid
By Brian Price
"Stories like Bryce's are the reason I do what I do for a living."
Arizona head baseball coach Andy Lopez, who has more than 1000 wins in 30 years of coaching at the D-I level, has a lot to say about Wildcats senior second baseman, Bryce Ortega.
"Up there, with the highest highs of coaching, is watching a terrific young player, like Bryce, come back and recover from a terrible injury," Lopez said.
Ortega came to Arizona as a walk-on during his freshman year in 2008. After the fall, it was unclear if he would make the spring roster. And when he did, it wasn't definite that he would even travel with the team on road trips.
"We were coming off a tremendous season in 2007, and were ranked preseason No. 1 entering ," said Lopez. "I purposely put together a difficult schedule to start 2008, as I wanted to see what we were made of."
With that in mind, the coaching staff decided to start Ortega against UNLV on March 4, 2008, to see if Ortega could make a statement.
He did. By going 3-3, with a double and a stolen base, Ortega started his Wildcat career with a bang. From that point on, Ortega was the starting shortstop.
As the season continued, Ortega started every game at shortstop, compiled a batting average of .325, and stole 13 bases for an Arizona club that came within one game of the College World Series.
He followed this up with another terrific year as a sophomore in the 2009 season, batting .324 and establishing himself as a threat on the basepath with 16 stolen bags.
He was also named first-team All-Conference.
Then things began to change. To accommodate the needs of the team, Ortega agreed to move from shortstop to second base.
"Freshman [shortstop] Alex Mejia came in, and we went back forth to see who would be a better fit at short and second. Our skills were pretty equal at short, but I was able to naturally play second a little bit better," Ortega said. "The move was for the chemistry for the team."
Lopez also recalls Ortega's selfless commitment to the club; he agreed to the move without hesitating.
Through the first 24 games of the 2010 season, Ortega didn't commit an error. His batting average started slow, in the.150's, but gradually climbed to the .260's, as the season progressed.
The overall transition from shortstop to second base appeared doable. Arizona was leading the country in double-plays and Ortega was still stealing bases and drawing walks. But trouble struck.
"Before the season even started I had back pains, but assumed it was just tightness," said Ortega. "I tried to solve it with stretching and heating, but nothing was helping. I didn't want to let my team down so I just played through it."
Then, on March 27 that year, against Oregon, one swing was literally the straw that broke his back.
"I was at bat and fouled a pitch off and [felt a pain] in my back like nothing I had ever felt before," he said. "The at-bat wasn't over, and I didn't want to swing again. Next pitch I flew out and had to leave the game immediately. I couldn't move."
The pain was caused by a stress fracture in one of his vertebrae.
Leading up to Ortega's injury, the Wildcats were riding a 15-game winning streak. After Ortega went down, the Wildcats lost their next four in a row, and, without his defensive play, struggled in the NCAA Super Regionals, eventually losing to Baylor to end the season. Overall, 18 of the Wildcats 22 regular season loses came after Ortega's injury.
"We struggled to fill his shoes," said Lopez.
It was even harder for Ortega, once willing to do whatever it took to help his team, to be relegated to a spectator role, especially in the midst of a rough season.
"I could handle never playing baseball again," said Ortega. "But knowing I might not be able to help the team again was the by far the hardest part."
Ortega went through rehab that summer with no guarantees of ever returning to the diamond. He was in a full back brace from May to October.
Miraculously, Ortega's back healed properly and he has since returned to the Arizona lineup for his senior season as the starting second baseman.
"Every time I see him play now, I'm just excited for him," Lopez said. "The odds were against him that he'd ever be able to play again. I'm sure he went through moments of depression and doubt, but it's really been a joy watching him play this year."
Ortega currently leads the Wildcats in stolen bases with 19, and has been instrumental in helping the club orchestrate a recent six-game winning streak. With their most recent win this past Sunday to complete a series sweep against Alcorn State, the Wildcats reached the 30-win mark for the fifth season in a row.
Off the field, Ortega is active in the community. For the past three years, Ortega has been a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, serving as the baseball representative for Arizona the past three seasons and has been vice president the past two.
"As the leaders of the various teams within the athletic department, we meet twice a month and discuss problems, changes that need to be made as well community service initiatives we want to take on," Ortega said.
Ortega has also organized an after-school mentoring program for a middle school in Tucson, and has put together food and clothing drives during the holiday seasons.
"His character off the field is second to none. For all these reasons he'll thrive at the pro level," his head coach said.
But until then, there's work to be done in Tucson.