WASHINGTON — Center fielder Rafael Ortega was supposed to be a short-term solution when the Cubs recalled him from Triple-A Iowa in late May, but since joining the team, all he has done is hit.
Ortega, 30, was the Cubs’ best hitter in July, slashing .368/.419/.544 with five doubles, a triple and a home run.
He was getting more opportunities in the lineup before the Cubs’ moves at the deadline, and in their 6-5 loss Sunday to the Nationals, he showed why.
Ortega had himself a historic afternoon with three homers in the series finale.
“This is incredible,” Ortega said. “It’s something that you don’t really think could happen, especially to me. I thank God for letting me continue this run that I’m on right now. I dedicate this to God first and my family, especially my family in Venezuela.”
Before the game, there were several things Ortega had never accomplished in the big leagues. One was hitting a leadoff homer in a game, but he got that out of the way quickly.
Ortega hit a solo shot three pitches into the game. The blast gave him homers on consecutive days for the first time.
“He’s on fire,” manager David Ross said. “He’s been such a catalyst at the top for us since moving up there. He was a really big bat off the bench. He’s locked in, great approach. It feels like he’s in every at-bat.”
When the Cubs needed a big hit, his spot in the order came up, and he delivered. In the sixth inning, Ortega blasted a two-run shot to trim the Nationals’ lead to 4-3. It was the first multihomer game of his career.
But Ortega had one more trick up his sleeve. After the Nationals scored a run in the seventh, he came up in another big spot.
Ortega crushed a two-run shot in the eighth inning into the upper deck to tie the game at 5 and put an exclamation point on an incredible day. He tied a franchise record with the three homers.
It was the first time it has been done by a Cub since Kris Bryant did it on May 17, 2019, also in Washington.
“I’ve never had a feeling like I have right now in my career,” Ortega said. “When you have bad days — I had bad days in the past — I just kept my head up. I think that’s what helped me to be here right now and do what I’m doing.”
He also is the Cubs’ first left-handed hitter with three homers in a game since Brant Brown on June 18, 1998, against the Phillies, as well as the first Cubs lefty to hit three homers on the road since Rick Monday on May 16, 1972, in Philadelphia.
Ortega finished 4-for-4 and drove in all of the Cubs’ runs. His performance capped a dominant series against the Nats in which he went 8-for-13 with a double and four homers.
Alas, the Cubs lost on a walk-off homer by Yadiel Hernandez, his second of the game.
“I think he’s just getting comfortable,” Ross said. “He didn’t have a lot of run early on and coming off the bench and the role he was in, just getting hits. . . . It’s a lot of line drives to left-center, right-center. The power is just showing up as the ball is getting in the air. But he’s been hitting the ball hard.”