SAN FRANCISCO -- The past two times the Dodgers have clinched a postseason series, it’s been left-hander Julio Urías on the mound recording the final out. His championship-sealing strikeout of Willy Adames in Game 6 of the 2020 World Series will forever live in Dodgers history.
If Los Angeles wins another postseason series on Thursday, it could again come down to Urías’ left arm. Though the Dodgers made a late change Thursday afternoon and named right-hander Corey Knebel as the starting pitcher, the Mexican southpaw will surely take the mound at some point for the Dodgers in the winner-take-all Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Giants at Oracle Park.
“The adrenaline definitely changes, and the thought process a little bit,” Urías said in Spanish. “We have a great team, and I have great support behind me, so we’re confident going into [Thursday's] game.”
While Urías believes in his team, the Dodgers are even more confident when he's on the mound.
In his first full season as a starter, Urías had one of the best years in the NL. He made a career-high 32 starts and pitched 185 2/3 innings, blowing past his previous career high (79 2/3 in 2019). He also became MLB's first 20-game winner since Max Scherzer won 20 games for the Nationals in 2016.
Though pitcher wins isn’t a statistic that carries as much weight as it once did, the reality is that when Urías is on the mound, he often does more than enough to help Los Angeles win.
“It’s been fun to watch him go from last year, ‘Hey, we’re going to use you all the time and throw two or three innings,’ to this year getting a full year of, ‘You’re going to make 30 starts and see what you can do,’” Dodgers starter Walker Buehler said. “It’s been cool to watch him grow and evolve into that role, and I don’t think we could have any more confidence in someone going [into Game 5] than we do in Julio.”
Part of Urías’ evolution has been the introduction of a slurve and a much-improved changeup. Opposing hitters recorded a .155 average against Urías’ curveball, which also counts his new slurve. They also hit just .194 off Urías’ changeup, which became his third-most-used pitch, replacing the slider.
“Honestly, everything has worked pretty well this year,” Urías said. “Part of the consistency comes from the fact that I’ve pitched every fifth day and knowing that I’m going to have the ball every fifth day, regardless of what happens. And obviously staying healthy throughout this entire year has allowed me to do everything I have out on the field."
From the moment the Dodgers signed Urías at age 16, this is the type of pitcher they envisioned him becoming. The natural comparison was Fernando Valenzuela, given that he was another Mexican left-hander who pitched for Los Angeles. But that comparison was also sometimes unfair to a young pitcher who was trying to find his way.
But through every step, Urías handled the expectations by delivering quality results. After dominating in the lower levels of the Minors, he was only 18 when he got called up to Triple-A Oklahoma City in 2015. He was 19 when he made his Major League debut on May 27, 2016.
Urías had the makings of becoming the Dodgers' next star, but then adversity hit. In 2017, he underwent season-ending anterior capsule surgery on his left shoulder, an injury that usually takes 12-14 months to heal. In many cases, pitchers don’t come back the same. But over the past three years, Urías has come back even better.
“This year, I think he just continued to build on his experience,” Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts said. “And it’s kind of propelled him to this season to just be an outstanding performer all year for us.”
Thursday’s game is easily the biggest of the season for the Dodgers, and perhaps the most important of Urías’ career. But when he speaks, he doesn’t sound like a 25-year-old who just completed his first season as a full-time starter. His demeanor is one of a pitcher who has been through these moments before.
The Dodgers hope Thursday ends with Urías celebrating a series-clinching win once again.
“He just gets on the mound like he’s been there, he’s done it, and he’s got so much confidence in himself that it just kind of oozes out on everyone else,” Los Angeles outfielder Mookie Betts said. “I’m sure he’ll have that confidence oozing out, and we’ll just go out there to win one game.”