Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone understand that it is impossible to win every game, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. Embodying that organizational mindset, every move that the front office makes is geared toward bringing home a 28th World Series title. It goes without saying that the Yankees hate to lose.
That being said, there are certain losses that are easier to put in the rearview mirror than others. May 26, 2019, was one of those. Sure, in the moments immediately following the Royals’ 8-7, 10-inning victory at Kauffman Stadium, there was some disappointment. But Bill Mazeroski this was not.
The Yankees had entered the month of May 2.5 games behind the Rays in the American League East, but thanks to a number of guys stepping up and contributing in a big way, the team caught fire. A doubleheader sweep in Kansas City on May 25 secured the Yanks’ seventh straight series win, moved them a then-season-high 3 games ahead of second-place Tampa Bay in the division and extended their winning streak to seven games. With a chance to make it eight straight and finish off their road trip a perfect 7-0, the Yankees battled back from a 7-1 deficit with three runs in the sixth and three more in the ninth.
In the bottom of the 10th, with the score still tied, 7-7, Royals speedster Billy Hamilton stood on second base with one out. Left-handed-batting leadoff man Nicky Lopez smacked a ground ball down the third-base line that seemed destined for the left-field corner and a walk-off victory. But manning the hot corner for the Yanks was Gio Urshela, who deftly backhanded the two-hopper, looked Hamilton back to second, then fired across the diamond to nab Lopez by a half-step.
It was the type of impressive, instinctual play that Urshela had been making on a near daily basis since being called up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on April 6. “I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at this point,” analyst David Cone said on the YES Network broadcast. “But look at him check the runner in the middle of that, and wheel and deal!”
So when the next batter, Whit Merrifield, smacked a chopper toward third that took a bad hop over Urshela’s head, scoring Hamilton easily, Yankees fans couldn’t get too upset. “If there’s anybody you want the ball to be hit to,” Cone said, “it’s Gio Urshela at third.” The winning streak was over, but the Yankees were returning home in first place. And if it hadn’t been for Urshela, there’s no telling where the team would have been.
“Being able to come in,” said CC Sabathia, “and get some great hits for us -- big hits -- and play unbelievable defense, he’s one of the main reasons why we’re sitting where we’re sitting right now despite all the injuries.”
The Yankees returned home after that road trip and took two out of three from the Padres. San Diego third baseman Manny Machado, perhaps the most coveted free agent during the previous winter, collected two hits in the series, as did Urshela, who rapped a pinch-hit single in the middle game. With Boston up next, the media descended upon Yankee Stadium in full force. In the hallway outside the Yankees’ clubhouse prior to the first game against the Red Sox, television cameras clustered around a blue backdrop adorned with interlocking NY logos. Their bright lights dilated Urshela’s large, brown eyes as NBC’s Bruce Beck gathered the 27-year-old’s comments about the impending series.
The series finale, a matchup of Sabathia and David Price, was ESPN’s featured Sunday Night Baseball game. The day before it, former Yankees third baseman-turned-analyst Alex Rodriguez patrolled the clubhouse that he used to call home. After casually chatting with fellow 2009 world champ Sabathia, who was seated on a couch watching Liverpool defeat Tottenham in the UEFA Champions League final, Rodriguez headed straight for Urshela and spent nearly 15 minutes talking shop in front of the Colombian infielder’s locker.
With each passing game, Urshela’s stature seemed to grow. On June 4, the day after The Wall Street Journal ran an article with the headline, “Sorry, America: Even the Yankees’ Backups Are Great,” Urshela and the Yankees traveled to Toronto, which perhaps is a good place to stop and consider how Urshela became one of the most important players on the roster.
The 2018 trade deadline had already passed when, on Aug. 4, it was announced that the Yankees obtained Urshela from Toronto for cash considerations. With third baseman Miguel Andújar and second baseman/shortstop Gleyber Torres in the midst of historic rookie campaigns, the acquisition registered as a mere blip on the transactions report. Here was a player who had been designated for assignment twice already that season -- first in May by the Indians, who then traded him to Toronto, and then in June by the Blue Jays, who outrighted him to Triple-A Buffalo. Urshela was batting .244 for the Bisons when he got word that he had been traded -- again.
“I said, ‘No way,’” Urshela recalled. “They showed me the email saying that I got traded to the Yankees. That day we were playing against the [RailRiders]. So, I just had to move my stuff to the other clubhouse.”
Urshela had been on Cashman’s radar since at least 2016, when the Yanks’ GM began engaging in annual conversations with the Indians about him. Though Urshela’s path to the bigs seemed blocked by José Ramírez and Francisco Lindor on the left side of Cleveland’s infield, and he had a modest slash line of .225/.273/.314 in 148 games in the bigs, Urshela’s Gold Glove–caliber defense was a commodity the Indians were reluctant to part with -- but it wasn’t the only reason Cashman was so invested in acquiring him.
“We acknowledged that there were some numbers behind his regular numbers that indicated there was more with the bat,” Cashman said. “We thought that he was a superior defender that was unlucky in many respects, that there was some untapped potential that was laying in the weeds. The more that played out, the more skeptical you become until he turns it around. But still, if the price is right, it didn’t preclude us from taking a shot.
“What he’s actually doing right now, we’re obviously pleasantly surprised.”
At least the ground ball that ate up Urshela in Kansas City skipped over his head and didn’t knock him in the mouth. He’d been there and done that. Like so many of the great infielders to come out of Latin America before him, Urshela grew up honing his craft on rough fields strewn with debris, or on the street outside his house using taped-up socks for a ball and a broomstick or some other piece of wood as a bat.
“The field I used to play on and train on was a softball field, and it wasn’t very good,” he said. “It was a dirt field with rocks and broken glass, all that, and I would never know where the ball was going on ground balls. I broke my (top front) teeth one time; a bad bounce hit my teeth. That was a bad field, but I couldn’t tell you how many ground balls I took there.”
Urshela’s background is also unique, though, in that he hails from the historic city of Cartagena, located on the northern coast of Colombia, where soccer remains king. He played goalie as a kid, but, to his father’s chagrin, Urshela loved baseball most. “My dad wanted me to play soccer, but I said, ‘No, Dad, I want to play baseball,’” he said. “And then once I decided to play, my parents always supported my decision to play baseball.”
Urshela quickly got very good at it. As a shortstop, he helped Colombia nearly reach the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, twice -- losing in the Latin America Region Tournament in Puerto Rico one year and then in Panama the next.
By the time he was a teenager, Urshela felt he had a shot at playing baseball professionally, but there weren’t many Major League scouts combing Colombia in 2007. So, he attended tryouts in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Two teams -- the Indians and the Yankees -- showed interest, and on July 2, 2008, three months shy of his 17th birthday, Urshela signed with the Indians. His first trip to the United States came the following year.
“Coming to America was the hardest part for me because I came here with no English, nothing,” Urshela said. “I was scared to travel by myself. I went to Arizona (for extended Spring Training); it was a long flight. So, it’s been a long process.”
He spent 2010 in the New York–Penn League, playing 58 games for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers in Niles, Ohio. This is where his defense started attracting national attention; Baseball America named Urshela the “Best Infield Arm” in the Indians organization.
Clint Frazier, the Indians’ first-round pick in 2013, only played with Urshela for five games at Triple-A Columbus in 2016 before being traded to the Yankees, but, “I didn’t have to play with him to know how much buzz surrounded his glove when I was in the Indians organization,” the outfielder said. “It’s Gold Glove–caliber, for sure, over there. He’s nasty, man. I’ve seen him play shortstop, too. I mean, he’s good wherever you put him as long as he has a glove on his hand. He might not even need a glove on his hand!”
DJ LeMahieu knows what a Gold Glove looks like, having won the award for National League second basemen in 2014, 2017 and 2018 while with the Rockies. He also knows what a Gold Glove third baseman looks like.
“Yeah, well, I played with Nolan, so, that’s tough to beat,” LeMahieu said, referring to Colorado’s Nolan Arenado, winner of the last six NL Gold Glove Awards at third base and the last two National League Platinum Glove Awards. “But Gio definitely makes those type of plays that Nolan does. He’s just gifted over there. He’s really gifted, and it’s fun to watch him.”
LeMahieu didn’t know much about Urshela before joining the Yankees this season, but he soon noticed Urshela’s arm accuracy, his soft hands, and his ability to make throws from every angle imaginable.
“And from third base, I think that’s kind of what separates guys,” LeMahieu said. “A lot of guys can put their glove on the ball, but for him to finish plays the way he does, it’s pretty remarkable.”
Playing with his third organization of the season after spending the first nine years of his career with just one, Urshela managed to finish 2018 on a high note, batting .307 in 27 games with the RailRiders, then hitting .382 in nine International League playoff games. He was comfortable enough with his new team that, before becoming a Minor League free agent, Urshela signed a successor contract with the Yankees and was guaranteed a non-roster invite to Major League camp in spring.
Andújar, who finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, was the incumbent at third base, but Cashman was happy to re-sign a player that he knew, in the event of an injury, could fill in right away and not hurt the team defensively. “And if we get anything with the bat, it’s gravy,” the GM said. “He was an insurance policy waiting in the wings, and obviously we’ve gotten more than we bargained for on top of that.”
That “insurance policy” has paid off tenfold since Andújar went down for the season with a shoulder injury after just 12 games, and the bat that Cashman hoped would emerge has done just that. On April 26 at San Francisco, the day after hitting his first homer of the season, Gio Urshela -- “The most happy fella!” in John Sterling parlance -- hit cleanup -- the highest he had ever batted in a starting lineup. On May 17, Urshela celebrated his first career walk-off after drilling a two-out RBI single over Tampa Bay center fielder Kevin Kiermaier’s head to cap a three-run ninth inning that propelled the Yankees into first place in the AL East for the first time since Opening Day. At that point, Urshela led the Majors with three game-tying or go-ahead hits in the ninth inning or later (he also had a ninth-inning, game-tying two-run homer on May 7 against Seattle and a 14th-inning go-ahead RBI single on April 22 at the Angels).
That non-roster invitee who was DFA’d twice and traded twice last year? He nearly ended up on the American League All-Star roster this season. Through two rounds of voting, Urshela trailed only Houston’s Alex Bregman among AL third basemen, but the Houston slugger prevailed.
Urshela’s newfound prowess at the plate was most evident with runners in scoring position. The Yankees, led by LeMahieu’s sizzling .491 (26-for-53), were batting a Major League–best .286 with RISP through June 12 of this season. But Urshela with ducks on the pond …
“Automática,” said Thairo Estrada, leaning on Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu to translate the rest: “The confidence he shows at the plate, you can feel that. You can see it, you can feel it. You feel like once he’s in there, he’s going to fight, he’s going to have a tough at-bat, he’s going to put up a fight, and eventually he’s going to come through. We’re 100 percent sure that that’s what is going to happen.”
Entering play on June 19, Urshela was batting .375 (18-for-48) with runners in scoring position and had been particularly torrid with the bases loaded. In the first inning of a 12-1 rout of the Rays that day, Urshela came up with the bags full for the seventh time this season. He got hit by a pitch, reaching base for the fifth time in those seven plate appearances (a .714 OBP) to go with four hits and a sac fly for an .800 batting average, while driving in 10 runs.
“He’s amazing,” Torres said. “I know, and everybody knows, when it’s a big situation and Gio steps to the plate, for sure he’s going to do something great.”
For Cashman, clubhouse culture and chemistry aren’t the main concerns when deciding whether to acquire a player, but they do matter. And in that regard, Urshela has been a positive contributor, as well. Though not loud or outspoken, Urshela is lauded by his teammates for his ability to bring people together, his love of the game, his positive attitude and his hunger to get better. “He’s a baseball player,” LeMahieu said, which may not sound like much but is high praise in a big-league clubhouse. Of course, contributing to the Yankees’ winning ways is always a surefire way to fit in.
“There’s that saying: To be successful, you have to be good, you have to be healthy, and you have to be lucky,” Cashman said. “We’ve had success so far this year because we’re good. Can’t argue about the health. But in Urshela’s case, to some degree, we got lucky, too, because what he’s done here is exceeding our expectations.
“But, he was here for a reason. He was fitting a profile and a need, and the front office is doing a good job lining up insurance policies waiting in the wings that you hope you never have to cash in on. We’ve had to cash in on this insurance policy, and the dividends it’s paying off is far exceeding our expectations. We’re thankful for that.”