Six weeks ago, when the Dodgers reported for spring training at Camelback Ranch, Julio Urias’ role for the upcoming season was cloaked in mystery. They wanted to protect him from injury less than two years after major shoulder surgery, but they also wanted to maximize his impact in the majors. Did the left-hander belong in the minors to begin the season? In extended spring training? In their bullpen? In, gasp, their starting rotation?
On Tuesday, Urias walked off the mound at Dodger Stadium knowing his fate, at least for the regular season’s first week. The 22-year-old left-hander will start the season’s fifth game and if he pitches as he pitched Tuesday in the Dodgers’ 9-2 win over the Angels, he will stake a claim for more opportunities.
Urias needed 42 pitches to log four perfect innings Tuesday. His off-speed stuff flummoxed and his fastball consistently hit 96 mph. Most importantly, he located the pitch with precision, which he explained was an issue in his previous two outings.
“I thought everything was working,” Urias said in Spanish.
Urias logged a simulated inning in the bullpen after he came out of the game.
“It was great. I don’t think we could’ve asked for anything more from Julio this spring,” manager Dave Roberts said. “Obviously, the last tuneup, I think he threw the ball the best that he’s thrown all spring.”
The Angels, who announced Tuesday that left fielder Justin Upton will begin the season on the injured list with turf toe, didn’t produce a baserunner until the fifth inning, after Urias’ exit.
“He was keeping everybody off-balance,” said Angels center fielder Mike Trout, who grounded out on the first pitch in his only at-bat against Urias.
“His stuff looked good. And when he dropped down, it was 96 too. He has good stuff. Obviously, you root for guys who come back from surgery, and you hope everything comes out the way it’s supposed to, and he looked good tonight.”
Urias was slated to start opposite Jaime Barria, but the right-hander was optioned to triple A before the game. Barria had been slotted to begin the season in the starting rotation before the Angels acquired Chris Stratton from the San Francisco Giants a little after midnight Monday.
Instead, he will pitch for Salt Lake City and Patrick Sandoval, a left-hander acquired in exchange for catcher Martin Maldonado last July, was given Tuesday’s assignment.
The Mission Viejo High graduate secured four outs before he was pulled. He was charged with seven runs, three hits and five walks. Dodgers right fielder Cody Bellinger supplied three of the runs with a blast to straightaway center field during the Dodgers’ seven-run second inning, an encouraging sight for the Dodgers after Bellinger’s struggles against left-handers last season prompted the club to play him only against right-handed starters.
The next time Urias is scheduled to pitch, the Giants will populate the opposing dugout and the game will matter. It will be on Monday, in the Dodgers’ fifth game of the regular season, and he will start. It will be his first start for the Dodgers since May 20, 2017.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Urias was supposed to begin the season in the bullpen, where the Dodgers can carefully supervise his workload less than two years after major shoulder surgery derailed the former teenage phenom’s early 20s. The strategy was to limit his innings through the summer before unleashing him, perhaps as a starter, in October.
Those plans were scrapped when Rich Hill strained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee and the Dodgers, already with Clayton Kershaw on the injured list to begin the season, were left to fill a second rotation vacancy.
Ross Stripling was the first projected reliever bumped into the rotation. Urias was next, but could return to the bullpen after his first start if Kershaw or Hill is deemed ready by the time the Dodgers need a fifth starter again on April 9.
Urias convinced the Dodgers he was prepared for the role in Arizona, capitalizing on his first spring in which he pitched from start to finish without interruption. He finished the exhibition slate Tuesday having given up three earned runs in 152/3 innings. He struck out 15 and walked three.