Ureña's quality start 'a wasted opportunity'
The last time José Ureña pitched at Yankee Stadium, he suffered a broken forearm on a comebacker while pitching for the Marlins on Sept. 27. The right-hander was brilliant Sunday in his return with the Tigers, but he was ultimately hamstrung by a lack of run support.
Ureña can't do anything about the Tigers' offense, not in the American League anyway. All he can do is pitch. He's looking better at that with each start. And as Detroit continues its search for runs, Ureña is at least giving them a chance to stay in games.
"He pitched well enough to win that game," manager A.J. Hinch said after his club's 2-0 loss to the Yankees. "It wasn't a wasted effort, because we need that effort all the time. It was a wasted opportunity."
Time and again Sunday, Ureña sent down the Yankees in relatively quick order, sending Detroit back into the batter's box against former American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber. The Tigers never did solve their old AL Central nemesis, leaving Ureña on the short end of a pitchers' duel and a three-game series sweep at Yankee Stadium.
A day after the Tigers churned out four runs to make a game late, their offensive revival proved short-lived. Ureña, by contrast, looks like one of the better pitching comebacks in baseball this season.
"You know, it's pretty good, pretty good. It's amazing," Ureña said. "I can't complain. Thank God I feel good. I'm happy, healthy and keep being the way we want to be. Be aggressive and attack the hitters, that's all we can do."
Ureña's pitches have been electric since Spring Training, both in velocity and movement. The key for Ureña's success has been using that movement to put pitches where he wants for strikeouts and ground balls instead of wildly outside the strike zone for walks.
Sunday's work was a demonstration in that balance. Ureña compiled 25 called strikes, according to Statcast, his highest total in a game in two years. Again, he leaned on his combination of sinkers (59 of them out of 100 total pitches) and sliders (32) with enough movement to keep the Yankees' power hitters from getting much launch angle. His eight groundouts for the game included five in a row in his second trip through the middle of New York's order.
"He's pitching with a tremendous amount of confidence," Hinch said. "You can see it in his energy and his body language. He expects to get the guys out and he feels like he's got the weapons to do it.
"The second part of it is, as he's incorporated his slider -- and he's throwing it with more confidence and more regularity -- the opponent has to adjust. As soon as they come off the fastball a little bit, the 95 [mph] sinker inside is even more effective than it normally is."
Ureña has always been a ground-ball pitcher, but not like this. His ground-ball rate has been over 50 percent for a season only once in his career, in 2018. He entered Sunday at 58.6 percent, according to Statcast, and it won't change much after this.
He has had high-strikeout games before this as well; his seven on Sunday were one off his season high from two weeks ago in Oakland. But usually they come with the price of walks. Sunday marked just the fifth time in his career he posted seven or more strikeouts with one walk or none, and the first time since April 24, 2019.
"With him, I just try to stay low," catcher Wilson Ramos said, "and be in front of the ball, try to get those low pitches better. Because everything's moving down."
Ureña's downfall came after a brief bout of wildness early. Ureña got a ground ball from Gio Urshela to lead off the second inning, but the ball straddled the third-base line before hitting the bag for a leadoff single. Aaron Hicks' walk put two runners on with nobody out.
Two batters later, Kyle Higashioka found that line again, this time in left field as his line drive hit in fair territory and bounced into the left-field corner. The double scored Urshela and put Hicks in position to score on Brett Gardner's drive to the right-field wall and Robbie Grossman's leaping catch.
That was the last solid contact the Yankees made on a ball out of the infield. Ureña retired his final 17 batters starting with Gardner's sac fly. He struck out five of his final six hitters, including the side in order in the seventh.