Jorel Ortega didn’t know that Evan Russell knew.
The Tennessee baseball second baseman hovered behind Russell’s postgame interview on April 29 after they both hit two homers in the Vols' 17-4 win against Auburn.
The senior catcher quipped that his performance was better than Ortega’s. Then Russell delivered emotional remarks about Ortega, praising the success he has had a year after not making the travel roster for Tennessee.
His final remark caught Ortega off guard.
“I know that he was sleeping here while we were gone to be able to get up and practice and try to be able to be in the spot he is now,” Russell said.
Why Jorel Ortega slept at Lindsey Nelson Stadium
Ortega has arrived this season as the offensive force he always expected to be. He’s slugging the ball to all fields and playing the game with the joy that defines him everywhere he goes.
“Jorel, if you know him, is kind of what you want a baseball player to be,” Vols coach Tony Vitello said.
Ortega wasn’t that player last season for the No. 1 Vols (46-7, 22-5 SEC), who play at Mississippi State (26-27, 9-18) in their final regular-season series starting Thursday.
He wouldn’t have been in Starkville a year ago. He would have been in Knoxville, removed from the action and searching.
“I started sleeping here because I wanted to figure it out,” Ortega said.
Ortega entered the 2021 season with internal and external expectations of being a key cog on a loaded Tennessee team. He put on a show throughout the fall session, clubbing extra-base hits and leading the Vols in multiple offensive categories.
He started during UT’s season-opening series at Georgia Southern but couldn’t replicate the preseason success and his playing time disappeared. He went 4-for-27 with a home run and a double. He got one at-bat in SEC play.
It ate at Ortega. Everything felt like a punch, he said. He was worried fans didn’t want to see him play because he was not performing to his abilities. He questioned if his friends would want to hang out with him anymore.
He lived in his head and wasn’t having fun. An 0-for-4 outing felt like 0-for-400 and he doubted the coaches wanted to play him.
“This whole time I am thinking, ‘Damn, am I not good enough?’ ” Ortega said.
Ortega found his answer by getting as close to the game as he could. He slept on the couches in the team lounge at Lindsey Nelson Stadium routinely after Sunday games or when he didn’t travel. He worked late Sunday and got up early Monday to start working before his teammates arrived.
How staying at the facility helped Jorel Ortega
Vols hitting coach Josh Elander went to see Ortega on his first recruiting trip after he was hired in 2017. The Lake Worth (Florida) Spanish River shortstop had big offensive upside and the Vols coveted his talent.
Ortega looked at video with Elander during his struggles last season, but didn’t see anything wrong in his swing. He went to the basics.
“Anything to just clear my head,” said Ortega, who was born in Puerto Rico. “Not trying to put pressure on myself, but just working.”
The 6-foot, 194-pound Ortega took extra batting practice by himself on Sunday nights. He woke up early at the ballpark and often started with film study. He got in the batting cage and hit off a tee by himself. He moved to hitting off a machine to get his hands loose and comfortable.
“It showed me how bad I really wanted it,” said Ortega, who missed the 2020 season after having Tommy John surgery.
He also found that it wasn’t a skill set issue that was in the way. He had to learn to clear his head and stop playing uptight.
Russell counseled Ortega and talked though the struggles he had as a freshman. Student assistant coach Ricky Martinez taught him about being present. They encouraged him to center on the controllable elements of his life and in baseball. Russell suggested journaling daily to find a good mindset.
“I wanted to get back in my groove,” Ortega said. “I wanted to find that point where I knew I belonged in this league and knew what I was capable of. I knew I could perform at the highest level in college baseball in the SEC.”
Finding success again
Ortega fell behind 0-2 against Auburn reliever Blake Burkhalter. He fouled off the next pitch then took a ball up and in. Then there was the pause.
Auburn’s coaches and trainers went to check on Burkhalter. Ortega stood outside the batter’s box and waited.
“The whole time I was talking to myself,” Ortega said. “Trust yourself and use your hands. Act as if have been here before. Trust yourself.”
He hit a grand slam on the next pitch to flip the game.
Ortega has hit 12 homers and driven in 40 runs and is batting .317 while ranking second on the Vols with 114 total bases.
Ortega pointed to that at-bat against Auburn as a difference between the player he was as a redshirt freshman and who he is now. He has no fear with two strikes. He isn’t pressing for big hits. He strives for solid contact and productive team at-bats.
“He has got a strong passion for the game and the guys in the locker room,” Vitello said. “I think it shows.”
Russell saw that in how Ortega approached being on the outside looking in during Tennessee’s College World Series run in 2021. Ortega is right in the middle of the push for another College World Series berth this year.
He’s feeling like himself through it all. Vols pitching coach Frank Anderson has commented to Vitello how Ortega is always talking to umpires in between fashion, a reflection of the fun-loving nature Ortega recaptured.
He doesn’t sleep at Lindsey Nelson Stadium anymore. But he also won’t forget that he did.
“History is there to not make the same mistakes as before,” Ortega said. “I took things from last year and am approaching things differently. I am letting things happen and not forcing things. I think that is why I am having the success I am having.”
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Tennessee baseball: Vols' Jorel Ortega learned from his miserable 2021