Return to San Fran a fresh start for Ortiz
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. &
The memories from Russ Ortiz's final moment in his first stint with the San Francisco Giants are still painful.
After walking off the mound with the game ball and his team eight outs from the 2002 World Series title, Ortiz could only watch as the bullpen blew a five-run lead in a crushing defeat.
The team hasn't won a playoff series since, extending the World Series drought to more than a half-century.
The road Ortiz has taken since that night in Anaheim has been a winding one. First there was a trade to Atlanta, followed by 36 wins and a pair of division titles in two seasons. After parlaying that into a $33 million, four-year contract with Arizona, little has gone right for Ortiz.
He went 5-11 in his first season with the Diamondbacks before hitting bottom last year: an 0-8 campaign, a release from Arizona and advice that he should leave the game for good.
"I was told be people that I'd done. I was told by people that, 'Hey you have to realize that you can't do it anymore,'" Ortiz said. "I wouldn't believe it because I knew there was something holding me back. I was healthy. I knew all the stuff was there. Something was holding me back, but I couldn't figure out what it was."
Ortiz could have easily stepped away, collected the $16 million the Diamondbacks still owe him for 2007 and '08 and reflected on a career that included 108 wins, an All-Star appearance, and four trips to the postseason.
Instead, he went to Puerto Rico to play winter league ball for the first time in eight years and began working on doing what was necessary to be a winning pitcher once again.
"I wasn't going to accept the fact that I lost it," he said. "It wasn't my focus to say, 'I told you so.' But it was a situation where I wanted to be able to say, 'I still had it.' I knew I had a lot left in me."
Ortiz tinkered with his mechanics late last season in Baltimore with pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who was in Atlanta during his career-best 21-win season in 2003. The two realized that Ortiz was bringing his arm straight The new motion generates more arm speed and has added about 4 mph to Ortiz's fastball.
Giants catcher Bengie Molina, who faced Ortiz during his struggles last year in Baltimore, immediately noticed the change this spring.
"Now he's back the way he used to and being nasty again," Molina said. "I see a lot of good stuff from him that I didn't see last year."
It's the reaction of the hitters that speaks loudest. Ortiz has allowed four runs in 12 innings this spring, and has almost locked up the fifth spot in the Giants' rotation.
"He's thrown the ball well every time out," manager Bruce Bochy said. "It's a great sign to see him back on track. He's had to deal with a lot the last couple of years and worked hard to get back."
In a bit of an oddity, Ortiz will be pitching for the Giants, while receiving the bulk of his salary from the division-rival Diamondbacks.
Arizona is responsible for all but the major league minimum $380,000 of Ortiz's $7.5 million this season, and the Diamondbacks owe Ortiz an additional $8.5 million next season as well.
"That's a story for you guys," Ortiz said. "For me, that has nothing to do with it. It was weird when I faced them this spring. But I was glad to get that out of the way, because hopefully I'll face them again during the season."
Ortiz averaged nearly 16 wins a season in his four full years with the Giants and won the opening and clinching games of the 2002 division series against the Braves.
Plenty has changed in San Francisco since Ortiz's trade following that season. The team is on its second manager since then and Barry Bonds and Rich Aurilia are the only other players left from 2002. But it still feels like home. "This was at the top of my wish list," Ortiz said. "Even though I'm at a different stage of my career, this is where everything started. The familiarity is a good feeling, even though it's only me, Rich and Barry. It's still a comfortable clubhouse."
Ortiz hopes that in his return he can give San Francisco that elusive World Series title that was so close in 2002. With the Giants leading the Series 3-2, Ortiz was cruising along with a 5-0 lead before allowing back-to-back singles with one out in the seventh inning.
Manager Dusty Baker came out to change pitchers and handed Ortiz the game ball. The much-debated removal of Ortiz was followed by a bullpen collapse and a 6-5 loss. The Angels finished off the Series the following day with a 4-1 victory and that game ball has stayed in a box all these years.
"It will come out sometime. I just don't know exactly when," Ortiz said. "That was almost the greatest feeling you could have as a player. I still think about how it would have felt if we had won it."