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Pirates fall to Cubs

PITTSBURGH — A year ago, Luis Ortiz was pitching for Single-A Bradenton. A month ago, he was pitching for Double-A Altoona. Two weeks ago, he was pitching for Triple-A Indianapolis. With another tantalizing outing on Sunday, Ortiz’s stock just continues and continues to rise.

Ortiz turned in his latest electrifying start in the Pirates’ 8-3 loss to the Cubs on Sunday at PNC Park, striking out a career-high seven batters across 4 2/3 innings. Along the way, he nearly made some history.

“I’ve enjoyed it a lot, just being able to go out there and face some really tough lineups and be challenged in certain ways, but at the same time, see that a lot of the hard work that I’ve put in is showing a lot of results,” Ortiz said through team interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “Every day, there’s something to learn. There’s ways to grow and I’m just very excited and grateful for the opportunity.”

The 23-year-old was at his most dominant in the second frame, coming within one strike of tossing an immaculate inning. He struck out Nico Hoerner on three pitches. He struck out Franmil Reyes on three pitches. He got two quick strikes on P.J. Higgins and stood one strike away from joining the rare club — a club that the Cubs’ Hayden Wesneski joined just a couple days earlier.

“I thought we were going to see two in three days,” said manager Derek Shelton.

Higgins ultimately played spoiler by fouling off a slider, setting off a wave of groans for the fans who realized Ortiz had fallen short of the feat. Ortiz, who achieved the feat twice in just 25 days with Altoona earlier this season, promptly finished off Higgins one pitch later, striking him out with an inside 99.6 mph fastball that induced an ugly, defensive half-swing, half-flail.

“My focus was just going out there and making sure that I’m attacking the zone and giving the best that I have,” Ortiz said. “That’s always been my mindset. That’s how I’m going to continue forward.”

That aggressive mentality has yielded tantalizing results. Through three starts, Ortiz has allowed two earned runs across 15 1/3 innings (1.17 ERA) with 17 strikeouts. Those numbers are already plenty impressive, but the trait that has stood out to Shelton is Ortiz’s cool.

Ortiz made his debut in the back half of a doubleheader against the Reds in Cincinnati. Relatively speaking, the environment was pretty lax. The 23-year-old’s second start, by contrast, took place in front of a packed Yankee Stadium with Aaron Judge sitting on 59 home runs.

“He’s not scared,” Shelton said prior to Thursday’s game. “Do not take anything away from any big league team because it’s the big leagues, but it’s as much the atmosphere as anything else. It’s a split doubleheader in Cincinnati [versus] Yankee Stadium. Judge is chasing history. He went out there and pitched like every other game. That’s the thing that’s the most exciting to me about him. The way he handled himself. The way he handled himself when he came out. The conversations the next day.”

Ortiz may have the opportunity to make at least one more start, if not two more starts, by season’s end. Regardless of how many more outings he makes, he has before him an opportunity to potentially earn more staying power and stake a claim in next year’s rotation.

As things stand, the Pirates appear to have three true locks for next year’s Opening Day rotation: Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras and JT Brubaker. Johan Oviedo, who twirled seven innings of scoreless ball with seven strikeouts on Saturday, projects to be firmly in the mix as well. Should Ortiz keep shoving the rest of the way, he’ll be plenty deserving of consideration for a spot as well.

Ortiz stands to benefit from the refinement of a tertiary pitch, as well as the potential addition of a quaternary pitch. Ortiz has almost exclusively thrown four-seam fastballs and sliders in his first three starts, seldom mixing in a show-me changeup. Of the 237 pitches that Ortiz has thrown as a Major Leaguer thus far, only 5.1 percent have been changeups. Ortiz mentioned that he has thrown a sinker in the past, but has yet to throw one at the Major League level.

“I think right now we view him as a starter and hopefully he will develop his pitches or add another pitch on top of it,” Shelton said. “The fact that he’s got 100 there, that makes it difficult to generate contact at times and would make him a good backend guy. But the fact is right now he’s a starter. The great thing about guys you develop as starters is, if maybe they don’t have success as starters, then you have the ability to put them in different roles. But right now, we have Ortiz as a starter.”

Justice delos Santos is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter <\@>justdelossantos.

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