Julio Urías ready for his WBC moment as the ‘face of baseball in Mexico’

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Julio Urías throws a pitch against the Cincinnati Reds.
Dodgers starting pitcher Julio Urías throws a pitch against the Reds during the second inning of a spring-training game. Coming off a pair of remarkable seasons with the Dodgers, Urías enters the World Baseball Classic as an icon for Mexico and its fans.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)
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Julio Urías jogged off the diamond Friday, moments after Team Mexico took its team photo at Chase Field, and held up the front of his white jersey where Mexico was spelled out in red.

“Se ve bonito, ¿no?” he asked.

Doesn’t it look pretty?

Urías has played in a Mexico jersey before. Many times. He was invited to participate for national teams throughout his childhood, traveling from his hometown Culiacán to star in various international tournaments. That stopped when he signed with the Dodgers as a teenager nearly 11 years ago.

On Saturday, for the first time since his youth, Urías, 26, will play for his country again when he takes the mound against Colombia in Mexico’s World Baseball Classic opener. He’ll step on the mound not just as Mexico’s ace or an established star for one of Major League Baseball’s flagship franchises. Similar to Shohei Ohtani for Japan, Miguel Cabrera for Venezuela, and Mike Trout for the United States, Urías will participate in this tournament as the face of baseball in his country.

Austin Barnes and Julio Urías are representing not only Mexico in the WBC, but a community with the largest Mexican American population in the U.S.

“He’s the biggest ambassador we have right now,” Mexico manager Benji Gil said. “He’s Fernando [Valenzuela]. He’s Vinny Castilla in the ‘90’s. He’s Adrián [González] in the early 2000’s. He’s the face of baseball in Mexico.”

Last summer, sitting at his locker at Dodger Stadium, Urías spoke glowingly about his team’s prospects. He went through the lineup, rotation and bullpen. He thought the club had a real chance to win it all. He could’ve been talking about the Dodgers, but he was talking about Mexico.

It wasn’t official yet, but Urías was committed to playing for Mexico in the WBC for the first time. He wasn’t going to be denied. The Dodgers didn’t give him permission to play in the previous WBC in 2017, which he publicly admitted bothered him, but he was still a prospect then. This time was different.

Urías was coming off a 20-win season in 2021 en route to leading the National League in earned-run average and finishing third in the Cy Young vote last year. The injury concerns, heightened after undergoing major shoulder surgery in 2017, were behind him.

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Dodgers pitcher Julio Urías warms up during a spring-training game against the Cincinnati Reds on Feb. 28.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

It didn’t matter that he’s slated to become a free agent next winter, making the 2023 season perhaps the most important of his career. Other pitchers have balked in similar circumstances, afraid that a setback could cost them millions of dollars. Urías is expected to be one of the top players in the upcoming free-agent class. A rich long-term contract is on the table as a 27-year-old free agent — younger than most. He was willing to take the risk.

“I wanted to do this obviously first for my Mexican people who want to see me wearing a Mexico jersey,” Urías said in Spanish last month. “I wanted to give them that. They’ve given me that support every day. It’s special.”

Rodrigo López, the color analyst for the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Spanish-language radio broadcast after pitching in the majors for 11 years, first spoke to Urías about the prospective Mexican team last season at Chase Field. López hadn’t been named general manager yet.

They convened again later in the season when the Dodgers returned to Arizona and López had been selected to his post. He recalled Urías speaking with enthusiasm about the team. He relayed that excitement to other players he targeted, letting them know Urías wanted them to play to assemble the best team possible.

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“That created a domino effect,” López said. “And that’s what we’re seeing today.”

On paper, Urías will lead the deepest roster Mexico has constructed for a WBC. Established major leaguers José Urquidy, Taijuan Walker, and Patrick Sandoval of the Angels round out the rotation. Alex Verdugo, Randy Arozarena, Joey Meneses, Luis Urías and Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes headline the position-player crop.

Mexico is expected to advance from Pool C with the United States after the club was eliminated via a controversial tiebreaker in 2017. The country has never finished better than sixth in 2006.

“I feel like everything is coming together the right way,” Urías said.

A strong showing would represent another step in Mexico baseball’s growth the way Urías’ rise from heralded prospect to delivering the final pitch to complete the Dodgers’ 2020 World Series run marked one.

“He’s an icon,” López said in Spanish. “I think, right now, baseball from Mexico can’t be identified without Julio.”

Julio Urías’ family gathers around a TV in Culiacán every time he pitches. They pray for the Dodgers ace who overcame eye surgeries to become a star.

Castilla, Mexico’s bench coach, held that position atop the Mexico baseball hierarchy during the prime of his 16-year major-league career. The third baseman from Oaxaca took the mantle from Valenzuela, making two All-Star teams with the Colorado Rockies and clubbing 320 home runs for six teams. He felt the pressure that came with the unofficial title.

“Julio is the maximum representative, a man that has put Mexico’s name up high with the Dodgers,” Castilla said in Spanish. “You have to applaud him for wanting to be here with us, for wanting to represent his country. I’m happy that Julio is here with us because it’s an inspiration for many.”

Gil said he chose Urías to pitch Saturday — rather than saving him for Sunday’s sold-out game against the powerhouse United States team — with hopes that he’ll start in the quarterfinals in Miami should Mexico advance past pool play.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who starts, it’s going to be a difficult game,” Gil said about the matchup against the Americans. “So, why not start with our ace and start off on the right foot?”

WBC rules limit pitchers to 65 pitches per outing in pool play. Those might be the only ones Urías throws in this tournament. The face of Mexican baseball has been waiting.