Consistent Julio Urias enters postseason as Dodgers’ ace

LOS ANGELES — Julio Urias has become the front-of-the-rotation, elite starter the Dodgers envisioned when they signed him on his 16th birthday and sent him to the mound in a major league game as a 19-year-old.

“He’s lived up to everything that we had hoped for and more,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He was obviously a highly-touted prospect and for him to realize all those expectations – he’s done that and more.”

But it has not been a straight line from teen phenom to Cy Young candidate and Game 1 starter.

“Yeah, that’s the beautiful thing about all of this,” Urias said in Spanish on the eve of that National League Division Series start against the San Diego Padres. “There’s been a lot of ups. There’s been a lot of downs. There’s been a lot of good games, bad games, and a lot of things in between.”

Despite inning and pitch limits designed to protect him throughout his minor-league career, Urias suffered a significant shoulder injury just a year after making his MLB debut. Surgery was required to repair a tear in the anterior capsule of his pitching shoulder, sidelining Urias for most of the 2017 and 2018 seasons and adding an element of uncertainty to his future.

“We felt good about the fact that he was in the best hands possible with Dr. ElAttrache,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “But so much of the success from that surgery stems from the rehab. Not having seen him go through that before, that was a question. But watching the way he dominated that process gave us real confidence that he would be able to come back. To see what he’s done subsequently really speaks to the commitment to his craft that he possesses.”

Fully healthy in 2019, the Dodgers kept him in bubble wrap nonetheless, limiting his innings. He pitched more out of the bullpen than as a starter. More troubling, a domestic battery investigation following an incident involving his girlfriend led to a suspension by MLB.

The Dodgers were finally ready to make Urias a full-time starter in 2020 but the pandemic made everything a short-time situation. He tied for the team lead with 10 starts – then moved to the bullpen again in the postseason, where Roberts memorably deployed him to close out clinching games in the NLCS and the World Series.

“I felt ’20, how he stepped up in the postseason, was kind of a coming-out party and it’s carried over into ’21 and ’22,” Friedman said. “You can’t ask more from a guy who does everything he can to take the ball every fifth day and will do anything and everything to help the team win as evidenced in 2020. And he has been remarkably consistent – which is the ultimate compliment for a starting pitcher, especially an upper-echelon one. Just the mark of consistency over that period of time is really special.”

Urias was the only 20-game winner in baseball last season – a distinction that earned him only three fifth-place votes in the Cy Young Award balloting.

Now 26 years old, Urias has been even better in 2022. He led the National League in ERA (2.16) and had the league’s third-lowest WHIP (0.96) and batting average against (.199).

But he hasn’t been chosen for an All-Star Game and will probably be overshadowed by Miami Marlins right-hander Sandy Alcantara (who threw 53 innings more than Urias) in this year’s Cy Young voting.

That lack of recognition might be the best thing that could happen for the Dodgers.

“I think, for me, there’s a little bit (of a feeling) that he’s been slighted by the industry. So I think there’s something in there, that competitor in you that wants to prove everyone wrong,” Roberts said.

“I just think the kind of acknowledgment that he hasn’t gotten – whether it be an All-Star Game or Cy Young consideration – the good ones use that as fuel, in my opinion.”

Urias dismisses the notion that a surgical scar has been joined by a chip on his shoulder.

“No, people can say what they want,” he said in Spanish. “I’m just trying to do my job on the mound and focus on putting us in position to have the best chance to win the game. They can say or have whatever point of view they have. It doesn’t distract or motivate me to keep giving my 100 percent to win a championship, which is our main goal.”

If Urias were looking for slights to fan his fire, he might not have far to look. The Dodgers started him just twice in the postseason last year, using an “opener” for him in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Giants, bringing him out of the bullpen three days later in the NLCS and starting him three days after that.

It did not seem like optimal treatment of a 20-game winner and he did not pitch well in the NLCS.

“No, no,” Urias said when asked if he felt the Dodgers had shown a lack of respect (or trust) in the way they used him last fall. “Obviously, things happen and decisions are made and you accept them the best you can. Sometimes they don’t turn out the way you hoped.”

Perhaps more instrumental to Urias flourishing over the past two seasons has been an adjustment he made late in the 2020 season, opting to pitch exclusively out of the stretch and ditching his full windup. He made the change in response to first-inning struggles that plagued him for a time but the result has been greater consistency overall and improved pitch efficiency.

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“I think there were times where he was in his full windup, there was a lot of movement with the head, the body. To have to sync that up for a consistent throw, it’s hard to repeat even as athletic as he is,” Roberts said. “So when they decided to shorten that up and just keep him in the stretch – simplify – it just allowed for repeat-ability.”

Over the past two seasons, Urias has been a model of “repeat-ability.” In 63 regular-season starts, he has a 37-10 record with a 2.57 ERA and 0.99 WHIP over 360⅔ innings. Forty times in those starts, Urias allowed two runs or fewer, including his past 14 starts – a stretch during which he has a 1.27 ERA. He has dominated the Padres, going 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA in four starts.

“I have never been excited to walk into the batter’s box against Julio, so I think everyone felt the same way as I’ve felt this year against him,” Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman said Monday. “The way he neutralizes righties with the curveball in the back door, heaters up – they ride a lot more than you think it’s going to ride. Then it’s just the changeup. Every pitch is competitive.

“I think that’s what makes pitchers that are good become great is when every time you go into the box and you have to think about swinging on all those 100 pitches, it is really hard to do. That’s what he has done this year. The least amount of noncompetitive pitches you can throw in a game, that’s what makes you become like (New York Mets ace) Jacob deGrom. … Every pitch is competitive. It wears you out. It’s mentally draining.

“That’s what Julio, I think, has done this year and done so well. Every pitch is meaningful. … The game plan and the preparation and the competitiveness behind every pitch is I think what set Julio apart.”

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