Ureña keeps showing poise, competitiveness

Rockies right-hander allows 1 run in 5 1/3 strong innings in win over D-backs

September 11th, 2022

DENVER -- At times -- like Saturday night’s 4-1 Rockies victory over the D-backs -- right-hander Jose Ureña rewards Colorado for the sometimes painstaking, and even risky, undertaking of rounding him into an effective Major League starter.

Of particular interest was the fourth inning, when Ureña yielded three one-out singles, the last a Ketel Marte RBI knock for a 1-0 Arizona lead. Ureña then coolly forced Emmanuel Rivera into an around-the-horn double play -- the key sequence in his 5 1/3 innings, when he struck out five and gave up one run on five hits and two walks.

Not always does the 30-year-old Ureña, formerly with the Marlins, Tigers and Brewers, find the big pitch. Saturday was the seventh time in 13 starts since joining the Rockies that he went at least five innings and allowed three or fewer runs. But he's had three outings in which he's yielded five or more earned runs.

The Rockies love Ureña for his competitiveness -- he shook off back pain after colliding with Geraldo Perdomo while covering first base in the third -- his engagement with others and especially his sinking fastball that averages 96 mph and forces groundouts, including seven on Saturday. But he falls short when he becomes predictable, mainly because his secondary stuff can lag in quality and location.

“He’s a competitor, he’s got poise, he’s a veteran pitcher with a good fastball,” manager Bud Black said. “What we’re trying to do in a relatively short period of time since we got him is try to make incremental improvement in the secondary pitches -- more confidence in his changeup, a more consistent slider as far as the spin consistency. Just try to help his secondaries, get them to be a part of his game where they’re truly functional to go with his fastball.”

The risk is that even if the Rockies see the progress, Ureña is a free agent at season’s end and can walk.

But Ureña considers himself a starter, and his contact-based style (six strikeouts is his season high) is less than ideal in relief. Going into this season in a tight free-agent market, he signed to pitch in relief for the Brewers and was released after one month.

While Rockies fans can hope for a rotation stalwart to go with Kyle Freeland and Germán Márquez, Ureña has to be an option. Colorado typically doesn't cast in big-money free-agent waters, and such pitching fish rarely bite on Denver bait.

The Rockies also must consider Chad Kuhl, who is on a one-year deal, in a similar vein. Starter Antonio Senzatela’s left knee injury, which is expected to cost him the first month of next season, underscores the lack of depth that could make retaining rotation depth a necessity. Lefty Austin Gomber, who's been pitching in relief as the club looks at Ureña and Kuhl, figures to fight for a starting role.

Righty Peter Lambert, who likely will pitch in the Arizona Fall League in hopes that he can work past long-term elbow issues, and lefty prospects Ryan Rolison and Helcris Olivarez, who missed this year because of left shoulder surgery, all have to prove to be healthy next year. Ureña and Kuhl could be seen as veterans in hand, although trading for an experienced arm is also an option.

Whether it’s the Rockies or another club, Ureña is pitching for his future.

“It’s really important,” Ureña said. “I just try to get out there, execute the way I want and try to keep helping.”

On Saturday, Ureña had a sequence the Rockies sought against left-handed-hitting Daulton Varsho, the game’s first batter. After a first-pitch sinker, Ureña offered three changeups, the first two resulting in swinging strikes, and the last inducing a groundout.

Ureña’s fastball worked for the Rivera double play and a strikeout/caught-stealing double play in the fifth, with Perdomo whiffing and Rockies catcher Elias Díaz throwing out Cooper Hummel at second base.

For now, Ureña isn’t thinking about the future beyond “having fun” in his final starts. He believes the same relaxed positivity will help him lessen the times that innings and starts spin out of control. It helped him Saturday.

“If you think, ‘Oh, bad situation,’ sometimes you don’t execute the pitch the way you want,” Ureña said.

When the year ends, he and the Rockies will have to determine how good their situation is.