Eric Orze has made a habit of snapping off hellacious curveballs. Having some thrown his way? That’s another story.
At an age when most worry what type of fun will be had on the weekends, Orze faced two of the nastiest curves life can offer. But instead of striking out, he worked the count full and belted a walk-off homer for the ages.
Who says pitchers can’t hit?
The latest chapter of Orze's eventful last two years began last month. Surrounded by family and friends -- at a distance, of course -- the Mets came calling in the fifth and final round of the First-Year Player Draft.
"I knew getting drafted was a possibility, but until that moment there was always a doubt in my head," Orze said. "Going into the Draft, I kept hearing that I'd be probably be taken closer to the 10th round, except there wasn’t a 10th round. With the five-round Draft, I began thinking I might not have done enough to merit being picked, with my lack of work and track record. I thought, 'Maybe this just isn't my time.'"
He was wrong.
New York picked the University of New Orleans product with its last pick -- 150th overall -- of the Draft.
"I still can't put the feeling into words," the 22-year-old said. "It was such a wave of emotions. I didn't know if I should be excited. Should I cry? Should I pump my fists? It didn't seem real and I kept thinking to myself, 'Am I going to wake up from this?' Every emotion flowed through me at the same time."
Understandably, Orze's parents, Rick and Lynn, and sister Stephanie also were overcome.
"My family was so excited," Orze recalled. "It was just as big a moment for them as it was for me. We were all crying and just trying to appreciate the moment, especially after what all of us had been through."
What the Orzes had been through was the stuff of nightmares.
As Orze recalled, the sensation he felt in his groin and lower abdomen during his first year at UNO in 2018 was more discomfort than pain.
Then everything changed.
Orze woke up at 4:30 one morning in May 2018. He called the team's trainer and was sent to the hospital, where he underwent an ultrasound. Several hours later, he listened to a diagnosis millions hear every day.
Three months shy of his 21st birthday, Eric Orze was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
"I laughed at the doctor; I actually laughed. I couldn't believe it," he said. "The next few minutes were a complete blur. The doctor was going over treatment options with me and while I was listening, I wasn't comprehending anything being said. I remember looking down at my right hand and it was shaking. At that point, it hit me and I just cried like a baby. It's a moment I won’t forget."
Ironically, Orze likens his emotional state at hearing the diagnosis to Draft night two years later.
"There was such a range of emotions that hit me all at once. I wouldn't say I was scared, it's just something you never think you'll have to process, especially at my age," he said. "I was caught completely off-guard and I just didn't know what to do."
With nearly 900 miles separating him and his family back home in Illinois, Orze called his parents to deliver the news.
"There hasn’t been a harder discussion I’ve ever had to have. Knowing I had to share that news with my mom and dad ... I can't even describe how awful it was," he said. "Before I dialed, I kept trying to figure out a way to tell them but to make it so they'd be OK. It took me a few hours to completely process everything after that and then I told myself, 'Let's get at it.'"
Surgery was scheduled soon after and was successful, giving Orze a path back to a normal life and, eventually, the baseball field. More than two years removed from the ordeal, he still can't fathom the level of support he and his family received.
"I was never a real emotional person before my diagnosis, but everything done for us was amazing," Orze said. "Friends, other family members, teammates and their families, they all chipped in to help fly my parents down [to New Orleans] for my surgery. They put us up in a hotel, paid for our meals and our rental car. It was truly overwhelming."
"We were all in shock. No one expected to get that type of news," UNO baseball coach Blake Dean said. "But you go from baseball mode to making sure the person is taken care of and is getting everything he needs. We all rallied behind him, and like many in those situations, Eric just wanted to be one of the guys. He was still part of the team, so he'd come come on road trips, come to practices. He was one of us."
While given a seemingly clean bill of health, Orze went back to work, only to realize his body wasn't ready for it.
"It was tough after the surgery. I was cleared to throw and lift, but as I tried to get back into it, my body was telling me to slow down," he said. "The first time I really let it loose, I woke up the next morning with soreness throughout my body I'd never felt before. I had the freedom to do what I wanted, but it was only as far as my body would allow me to go."
Placed on a specific low-fat diet after the surgery, Orze lost about 25 pounds, which took him from 185 to 160. He underwent another procedure to remove swollen lymph nodes that produced good news: the cancer had not spread. Unfortunately, it was not to be the last ordeal he faced.
Soon after the second surgery, he was admitted to the hospital with fluid in his lungs. While the issue was resolved quickly, a doctor noticed a mole on his back and encouraged Orze to see a dermatologist.
Several weeks later came another stunning diagnosis: melanoma.
"At that point, I was more frustrated than anything," Orze said. "It was like, 'Now what?' Obviously, skin cancer is a big deal, but the surgery wasn't as invasive, so it felt like just one more thing holding me back."
Orze underwent several surgeries to remove cancerous growths on his back and submitted to full body scans every two months. The results have been clean since August, and the time between checkups was extended to six months.
He was ready to resume pitching.
After missing all of 2019, the right-hander returned to action on Feb. 14 and allowed three runs and five hits over 1 2/3 innings of relief against Southern University and A&M College.
"I never felt sorry for myself. That's not who I am,” Orze said. “I just try and make the best of whatever situation I'm in. When I got back on the field, there was no thought of what I had been through. I was out there competing and doing what I could do to get our team a win. Everyone was talking about me coming back from cancer and I basically said, 'Geez, I had forgotten I even had it.'"
Orze settled into his routine as a starter and posted a 1.50 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 27 strikeouts over 18 innings in three outings. Overall, he went 3-0 with a 2.75 ERA in four appearances. In his final start of the season, he recorded a career-high 12 strikeouts in seven innings to earn the win against Nicholls State University on March 7.
"It was impressive to see him come back and pitch the way he did," Dean said. "He got hit around his first outing ... some humble pie, to be sure, but he made some tweaks, his confidence grew and he took off."
But after beating cancer twice, Orze was forced to stop again, this time because of COVID-19.
"Not really knowing the severity of everything going on at the time, I'll be honest, I felt like it was so unfair," he said. "At the same time, I've always felt one of my best qualities is making the best of a situation. I tell everyone that having cancer was a blessing for me. It re-lit the passion I had for baseball and pushed me to prove to anyone watching that I could be as good as I wanted to be."
A little over two months later, Orze became the 91st player in UNO history to be drafted.
“We value, and I think most teams do, a strong makeup, strong desire, strong will not to quit,” Mets vice president of amateur scouting Tommy Tanous told MiLB.com. “We took Eric because he can pitch. His story is tremendous, but we took him because he's got a plus life on his fastball and a swing-and-miss split-finger. Now you add in what this kid has gone through, this inspiring story -- it's incredible."
His former coach agreed with Tanous' assessment.
"He’s always had confidence," Dean said. "I might even say it's more cockiness, but it gives him an edge out there. He's got the tools, the size and the work ethic to go far. Obviously, you need talent and a lot of luck, but he's go a lot of people behind him and the table is set."
Orze officially signed with New York on June 25 and is eager to begin the next stage of his baseball career.
"We're all doing what we have to do to kick this [COVID-19]," he said. "I feel better than ever and I'm working hard to be ready to play, whenever that time comes. Whether it's this year or next, I just want a timeline to know when I'll be able to get back out there and compete."
In the meantime, one of the newest Mets plans on using his story to benefit others.
"It's not about me anymore; I did what I had to do and beat it," Orze said. "I've seen how many people my story has touched. They've reached out to me with their own stories of inspiration and I don't take that for granted. I don't share my story because I want attention, I share it because it can help others. Just reminding people that no matter what stands in your way, just keep working and grinding and you'll get to where you want to go."
For Orze, that place is Citi Field. He's not there yet, but the first part of his dream came true last month and produced memories that won't fade away.
"Just seeing my parents and my sister crying tears of joy when my name was called ... we developed a whole new connection after going through what we did. Getting drafted was amazing, but dealing with everything and then experiencing that elation added a whole new level to it," he said. "It was a very special moment and one I'll never forget."
Michael Avallone is a writer for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB.