Former baseball standout Ortega living his dream as pro player


Ron Stapp, Sports editor

Becoming a professional baseball player wasn’t in the immediate plans when Jake Ortega first arrived on the CSU Bakersfield campus in the fall of 2015.

The 5-foot-10 and 145-pound middle infielder was more concerned about putting on weight and getting stronger in an effort to earn playing time for the Roadrunners.

But five years later, the Orange County native has exceeded his own expectations, all thanks to a transformation, of sorts, that helped him blossom into one of the best catchers in the school’s history.

The former Roadrunner backstop, who was selected by the New York Mets in the 28th round of the 2019 MLB Draft, is now preparing for his first full season of minor league baseball.

“It’s been a crazy ride so far,” Ortega said. “I didn’t have any (pro teams) looking at me in high school. I think people liked some of the tools I had, but I was really undersized. A lot of it is work ethic to get to this point. I just worked super hard and I owe a lot to the coaches at (CSUB).”

Although he only played shortstop in high school, except for a few scouting showcase events he signed up for to show off his versatility, Ortega was determined to earn playing time anywhere he could.

But with all four CSUB infielders returning from the year before, Ortega decided catching might be his best opportunity.

He started working with first-year assistant Justin Roberts, who like Ortega, was at one time an undersized catcher and infielder in high school and college. The two formed an immediate bond, with Roberts working to teach Ortega the finer points of catching. 

From receiving the pitch and blocking balls in the dirt to eliminating unnecessary movement and breaking habits. The two worked on it all, while at the same time working through the physical demands of being a college catcher.    

“We based everything on growth, on how we improve daily rather than results,” Roberts said. “Young athletes focus on what they do well and the results of everything and we just had to focus on how much better he was getting. And look where we can get to. And that was a good process in the two years that I had the pleasure of coaching him.”

It didn’t take long for the hard work to start paying dividends.

Ortega wound up starting 33 of the team’s 44 games his freshman season, finishing with the Roadrunners’ third-best batting average (.283) and 13 RBIs. It was the start of an impressive four-year career, and a first step in his journey to become a pro prospect.

The following year, Roberts last with the team before he took a position as an athletic director at nearby Stockdale High School, Ortega continued his growth despite suffering a UCL injury in the fall, hitting .322 in 30 starts.

“He was just relentless with his work ethic,” CSUB head baseball coach Jeremy Beard said. “He was always staying late and arriving early. And he showed a lot of ambition to be good. He was undersized, but he had excellent hand-eye coordination. We thought he would get bigger, but when he was still small he really worked on his skill development and really just grinding on his game.”

With his confidence beginning to flourish, Ortega suffered a setback the following season when he got sick in the fall and spent two weeks in San Joaquin Hospital with what doctors called a bad virus.

During the illness, Ortega lost 25 pounds, and it carried over into his junior season. With the loss in weight and strength, he struggled at the plate, hitting just .245. 

But through the recovery process, Ortega continued to improve his skills behind the plate, and says he was able to take things to the next level with new assistant Ryan Cisterna.

“Cisterna came in my junior year and he changed my entire career around, just from a catching standpoint, mental standpoint and handling a staff,” Ortega said. “I really saw myself grow in my junior year and in my senior year I really put everything together.

Following the season, Ortega was more determined together. He got his weight up to 170 pounds, hit his first college home run and led the team with a .326 average. A few month later, he was rewarded with a pro contract. He spent the next month bouncing back and forth between St. Lucie, Fla. and Brooklyn, N.Y., the Mets minor-league affiliates.

“Luckily Cisterna had pro catching experience and he trained me on how it was going to be in pro ball,” Ortega said. “I owe him so much credit for that because I was able to walk in to pro ball, walk into a staff of pitchers and be able to pick it up right away, learning how to call a game in college and handle a staff was able to translate right into pro ball.”

Ortega was invited to spring training in February, but when the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold, he was sent home a few weeks later. Ortega is now looking forward to his first full season, which he hopes will come early in 2021. He has found a group of other pro players to work out with near his home in the interim.

“It’s actually worked out,” Ortega said. “I’ve seen some improvement and I’ve been able to put on some more weight. There’s talk about maybe opening things up to teams to have an instructional league, but there’s been no official announcement. I just have to keep working and be ready when I get the call.”