Julio Urias took the mound at Miller Park on Thursday knowing his time as a starting pitcher for the Dodgers was coming to a temporary close. He was going to the bullpen after Thursday’s outing against the Milwaukee Brewers. He could’ve gotten hammered and exited in the first inning. He could’ve thrown a perfect game. It didn’t matter. Hyun-Jin Ryu is coming off the 10-day injured list Saturday to take Urias’s spot in the rotation. Urias is going to the bullpen, where he was supposed to begin the season.
The Dodgers still view Urias as a long-term starter, beginning next season, and project him as a top-of-the-rotation talent nearly three years after he debuted as a teenage wonder. And Urias offered a glimpse of the reason for their optimism in a 3-1 win Thursday, the Dodgers’ fifth win in a row.
The left-hander flummoxed the potent Brewers (12-8) over six scoreless innings. The only hit he allowed came with two out in the fifth inning. He walked two and compiled a career-high nine strikeouts. He elicited 17 swing-and-misses and bouts of frustration from an offense featuring the reigning National League Most Valuable Player. He became the youngest Dodgers starter with at least nine strikeouts while surrendering fewer than two hits since Clayton Kershaw in 2009.
“I felt really good,” Urias said in Spanish. “We attacked and that’s what I focused on most tonight.”
For five innings, the Dodgers (13-8) squandered chances to score against right-hander Zach Davies, who they encountered for the second time in six days. After going down in order in the first, they stranded at least one runner in each of the next four. Three runners were in scoring position. Their effort did, however, escalate Davies’ pitch count to 97 through five. That prompted his departure and a loud Dodgers surge against right-hander Matt Albers in the sixth.
Bellinger initiated the scoring by swatting a line drive over the right-field wall for a solo home run, pulling him into a tie for the major league lead in homers with Oakland Athletics designated hitter Khris Davis and later the Brewers’ Christian Yelich. A.J. Pollock singled and Max Muncy followed with a 109.2-mph liner over the wall in left-center field to give the Dodgers an instant three-run lead.
“We did a great job of getting [Davies’] pitch count up, getting him out of the game, getting to the bullpen,” Bellinger said. “Whether we scored or not, that’s a win in our book.”
The keys were then given to the Dodgers bullpen and Caleb Ferguson recorded a perfect seventh inning before trouble brewed for Joe Kelly in the eighth. After Hernan Perez singled and stole second base, Lorenzo Cain lined a base hit to left field. Alex Verdugo, a highly regarded pitching prospect in high school, was in left field after pinch-hitting the previous inning. Brewers third base coach Ed Sedar decided to test Verdugo’s left arm and waved Perez home with two outs and Yelich on deck. Verdugo threw him out with a 98.4-mph strike on one hop and swaggered off the field, gold chains bouncing on his chest, to a delighted Dodgers dugout.
“Just to help out the team,” Verdugo said, “and show off the arm a little bit, it was awesome.”
Kenley Jansen was summoned to pitch the ninth, which began with Yelich crushing a ball to the batter’s eye for his 10th home run. Jansen avoided further damage to notch his sixth save and extend the Dodgers’ win streak to five.
The Dodgers’ plan was for the 22-year-old Urias to break spring training as a reliever, but injuries to Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill in spring training forced the Dodgers to insert Urias in the rotation. Ryu’s strained left groin -- suffered on April 8 -- extended Urias’s stay.
The Dodgers decided utilizing Urias as a reliever in the majors is the best way to reduce his workload less than two years after major shoulder surgery while using his innings to help the team win. If all goes as planned, the Dodgers will, as manager Dave Roberts has described it, “unleash” Urias late in the season, perhaps as a starter.
“There’s a lot of baseball left,” Roberts said. “The way to kind of manage him, for the next, three, four months, that’s the best way we can do that. To bank some innings that we can get on the back end, is a decision we’re making.”
For now, Roberts said Urias will become, essentially, a long reliever and used in high-leverage situations. The manager said Urias will pitch multiple innings -- he emphasized he “can’t even see him going an inning” -- and could occasionally finish games.
Barring another injury in the rotation, Ross Stripling will join Urias in the bullpen once Hill is activated from the injured list. That will likely happen the following weekend, giving the Dodgers two capable arms to bolster their bullpen.
Before all that, Urias had a start to make after surrendering nine runs (eight earned) in 8 ⅔ innings in his previous two outings. He didn’t expend the latitude. Pitching at Miller Park for the first time since a cameo as a reliever in last year’s National League Championship Series, Urias’s fastball command was markedly better than in his two forgettable starts. He complimented the pitch with a changeup that was difficult for hitters to differentiate and a slider he used to put hitters away.
“Those guys weren’t taking good swings,” Roberts said.
Urias worked around walks in the first and third innings to keep the Brewers hitless until Orlando Arcia stepped to the plate with two out in the fifth. Arcia cracked a single on the ninth pitch of the clash to cease Urias’s no-hit bid. Urias struck out pinch-hitter Eric Thames on a changeup to end the inning.
He emerged for the sixth and retired the side on nine pitches. He concluded his night with 91. He’ll throw his next one as a reliever.