Lake Worth's Jorel Ortega emerges as hottest hitter on top-ranked Tennessee Volunteers

Rick Robb
Special to The Post

Naranjito, Puerto Rico, to Lake Worth to Knoxville, Tenn. 

That was the circuitous route Jorel Ortega traveled to get where he is today — in the starting lineup for college baseball's No. 1 team. Throw in stops at three Palm Beach County high schools and Tommy John surgery that cost him an entire season.  

"I think I've made the most of my opportunities," said Ortega, who signed with Tennessee in 2019 after a standout career at Spanish River High School.

Ortega was referring to his progress with the Volunteers this season, but he might as well have been talking about his entire baseball career.

For now, he is the hottest hitter on college baseball's hottest team, earning SEC Player of the Week honors after collecting eight hits in a three-game series against Alabama last weekend. He followed that up with a 4-for-5 performance, including a home run and a triple, in a 9-3 victory over Bellarmine on Tuesday night.

Tennessee infielder Jorel Ortega (2) rounds second base after a home run hit during a game at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, April 15, 2022.

Local Baseball:Cardinal Newman hurlers continue nearly pitch perfect win streak

Rankings:Check out Palm Beach County's top prep baseball programs

More Coverage:Pro baseball's first female manager Rachel Balkovec wins in historic debut

This weekend, Tennessee (34-3, 14-1) travels to Gainesville to face SEC East rival Florida (23-14, 6-9).

The Vols have been the talk of college baseball. Picked to finish fourth in the SEC East in the preseason, they won their first 12 conference games, part of a school-record 23-game winning streak. That included road sweeps of Ole Miss and Vanderbilt on consecutive weekends.

When the Vols finally dropped their first SEC game against Alabama last weekend, they responded by pounding the Crimson Tide 9-2 and 15-4.

In Knoxville, Ortega has become a fan favorite. His recent torrid streak boosted his average to .347, fourth-best on the team. He has 21 extra-base hits, including eight home runs, and 26 RBI.

"He deserves all the success he's getting now," said assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Josh Elander.

Elander knows better than most how hard Ortega worked to get here.

His journey began at age 14, when he had a heart-to-heart with his mother in Puerto Rico.

Tennessee's Jorel Ortega (2) cheers as he is greeted by Cortland Lawson (9) after Lipscomb hit a 3-run home against Alabama during the NCAA baseball game in Knoxville, Tenn. on Sunday, April 17, 2022.

"I told my mom that if I wanted to make a career out of baseball, I needed to leave the island and go somewhere where baseball is huge, like a hotbed," he said. "Florida is one of those places. I needed to go somewhere where baseball is big, play summer ball and get myself a scholarship."

His mother, Monica Rolin, agreed and moved the family to Lake Worth.

"It was a whole different world, a whole new language, a whole new culture," Ortega recalled. 

After splitting his freshman year between Lake Worth and Santaluces high schools, Ortega transferred to Spanish River in Boca Raton at the urging of a summer league coach. He established himself as one of the county's top shortstops, batting .420 his junior year and .377 his senior year. 

Tennessee's Jorel Ortega (2) fields a ground ball during the NCAA baseball game against Alabama in Knoxville, Tenn. on Sunday, April 17, 2022.

During the summer between his sophomore and junior years, Ortega caught the eye of a college recruiter at a tournament in Bradenton. 

"That was my very first recruiting trip at Tennessee," Elander said. "Jorel's was one of the first games I saw."

Elander, who rarely recruits South Florida players, kept tabs on the infielder over the next year and then signed him.

"We were really excited to get him here," he said. "And then right before (Ortega's freshman year), he was playing in a big tournament in New Mexico and tore his UCL, so we lost him for the year. That's a tough thing to overcome. But he did a good job of staying the course, being a good teammate, putting in a ton of hard work."

Ortega missed the 2020 season, which was cut short by COVID-19, then struggled to find playing time last year, when the Vols finished 50-18 and advanced to the College World Series. He appeared in only 13 games, batting .148 with one homer and three RBI.

Tennessee's Jordan Beck (27) and Jorel Ortega, right, jump in celebration of Beck's home run against Oklahoma during an NCAA baseball game on Sunday, March 6, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke).

This year, he has started 33 of 37 games, mostly at second base. He moved up in the batting order last weekend, taking over the No. 2 spot after hitting seventh or eighth most of the season.   

"You can move me around anywhere, 1 through 9, put me at DH," he said. "Same thing goes with defense -- put me anywhere you want and I'll do my best to get the job done. Anything to help the team."

Ortega is looking forward to facing the Gators this weekend. About 20 friends and family members will be coming in from Puerto Rico for the series. "I'll get to spend some time with them, catch up," he said. "It'll be a good weekend."

As for that long-ago decision to leave his homeland for Florida, Ortega said he wouldn't change a thing. 

"I'm in a great program that wants nothing but to help players," he said. "I love it up here."