How Julio Urias changed into ‘the Julio I am now’

DENVER — When Julio Urias made his major league debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 26, 2016, he was a 19-year-old power-pitching left-hander from Mexico. So the comparisons to Fernando Valenzuela, the Dodgers’ southpaw star from south of the border in the ’80s, were inevitable.

But while Fernandomania took the country by storm back in the summer of 1980, Urias found his career on hold after a solid rookie season (3.39 ERA in 77 innings, 9.8 K/9) because of a shoulder injury suffered in the minors in June 2017 that required surgery, shelving him for the remainder of that season and the first half of 2018. Urias worked his way back, returning to the majors for the stretch run after just eight rehab appearances in the minors, and he contributed to the Dodgers’ second straight National League pennant and pitched in the World Series.

Now the 22-year-old Urias has returned to the Dodgers’ rotation, ready to renew his bid for starting pitcher stardom. Before his start on Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN (8:30 ET), Marly Rivera caught up with the former teen phenom to talk about his recovery from surgery, the thrill of pitching in the postseason and his expectations for the future.

You came up at 19, you are a lefty from Mexico, and you wear a Dodgers uniform. The comparisons to Fernando Valenzuela were inevitable. Did you initially feel that you had to be like him?

Urias: It was not something that really bothered me, because it is flattering, but hearing it so many times got tiresome. As I have said, Fernando is Fernando and Fernando’s stats will be there forever. He did something that had a great impact on not only baseball in Mexico, but also baseball here in the United States. That will never change. Now I am trying to make my own way and put up my own stats. That is my mentality. Fernando already did his thing. He was a tremendous pitcher, and there will never be another Fernando. Now it is time to build my own career and get as far as I can.

Did you feel pressure?

Urias: Not so much when it comes to the fans but with the team. A team gives you an opportunity at age 19, they expect very good things from you. And I am not going to lie to you, every time I went out to pitch, I thought about it. Maybe it was lack of experience; I had to learn to give my best as far as I could give. Before, I thought I always had to do an excellent job because I didn’t want to fail the team, I didn’t want to fail the fans, I didn’t want people to say negative things about me. But right now, those are little things that you learn along the way; through the years I have learned that from my teammates. I have changed my mentality from the Julio I was three years ago to the Julio I am now.

Who helped you develop that mentality, which is difficult with you being such a young player?

Urias: My teammates here, [Clayton] Kershaw, Rich Hill, [Hyun-Jin] Ryu — who I get along very well with despite the language barrier — [Kenta] Maeda. I see them when they go up to pitch and always give their best, but obviously, it’s not going to go well every single time. That’s one of the things I have learned from them. My family has also been fundamental. My mom, my dad, through the bad times they were taking care of me, offering me words of encouragement. Those things help you.

Mariano Rivera always said pitchers have to have a very short memory. Is that something that you have improved upon?

Urias: Yes, and the truth is that is one of the main things that I have learned, to not be influenced by what happened in the past. Don’t focus on what a batter did to you before. Every day is another game, a new game, in which you prove your strength against their strength. That’s the beauty of this sport, baseball always gives you another chance. It gives you a second chance, it gives you a third chance, and giving your best is all you can do.

What did you learn from the past couple of years and the injuries you have had?

Urias: To never give up: “Nunca rendirte.” That’s one of the phrases, and I even have a tattoo, that is very important for me. After the surgery, I couldn’t pick up a ball for six months. When I started throwing, I did not feel any pain, thank God. I did not have any problems. But the moment I got on a mound for the first time, in my first three bullpens, I could not throw more than 82 mph. And that was throwing with all my might. And I had to tell myself, well, you’re already on this boat, and I don’t have to get off the boat. If I get off this boat, it will be the end of my career, everything that I’ve worked so hard for would go nowhere. So that’s one of the things I learned, to never give up, to keep working hard day after day. And at the end of a good day, to prepare for the next day, and not think about the four or five days ahead, or where I’ll be in a month.

When did you get the tattoo?

Urias: About eight months after I got the surgery.

Is it a kind of reminder?

Urias: Yes it is. It is a reminder of the focus one has, which you should take daily into your life as much as in baseball. Whatever happens, I think of never giving up. It’s one of the most basic things you have to keep in mind.

How much confidence did it give you to pitch in the playoffs last year and perform well?

Urias: The truth is, a lot. I remember that when we clinched our spot in the playoffs, I thanked God for being able to come back and for the team giving me the opportunity to pitch in September. I told myself, ‘OK, my year is done. I was able to return to a major league mound, which was my first goal. Now it’s time to watch the team go as far as possible and wish them the best.’ I never imagined that I was going to be in the playoffs. When they announced the first roster for Atlanta, I was not on it, but I traveled with the team to Atlanta. While we were on the plane, I said, ‘OK, anything can happen and maybe I will have an opportunity.’ Then came the series against Milwaukee and they gave me the opportunity. I got that out against Christian Yelich, which is a significant moment in my career, and from there on I thought, ‘I am here,’ and kept looking forward. Then came the World Series, a dream come true, but the truth is that I never imagined being there. Those two weeks of games are going to be and will continue to be fundamental for my career.

Tell me about getting that out, against Yelich …

Urias: A moment like that is unforgettable. If we had not gotten that out, who knows where we would have been? Maybe the series would have ended. That one of my teammates caught that ball there in the outfield, that amazing catch; it is one of the outs that I will remember the most in my career. I now have the confidence to say, ‘I already did it; why couldn’t I continue doing it?’ It’s beautiful that baseball gives you more opportunities.

Dave Roberts has continually said that his focus is on your health; do you feel that you can pitch without thinking about your injuries?

Urias: I’ve always been very thankful to the team for that. Obviously, the team is built to win, to compete every day, but they also have that mentality of protecting me, to not let go of the reins all at once, and I thank them for that. Right now I feel good, my arm feels good, but I also don’t think about asking them to give me eight or nine innings every time I pitch. Those are the little things that one has to learn about injuries. Being prepared is the most important thing for me right now, that there is no pain, that there is no impediment for me being able to pitch, and it’s something I always let them know. I have always told them: As long as my arm feels good, wherever you need me, whether the bullpen, as a starter, I am available for them.

What’s the hardest thing about pitching at Coors Field?

Urias: It’s different, you could say more difficult than all other stadiums, because breaking pitches are a bit more difficult to throw in this park. But it’s all the same: When you don’t execute the pitches you have to execute, even if the park is 600 feet, the batter will hit it out. You have to learn that and not take it with you to the mound. Obviously, Colorado is a tremendous team. They have tremendous hitters. But I am here for a reason, and they are giving me this opportunity for a reason.

The Dodgers have hit 22 home runs and scored 72 runs in nine games. How much confidence does it give to take the mound with that offense behind you?

Urias: It is something that I enjoy watching day after day. They are so many players contributing. A lineup like that, I would never want to face it. Those who face them need a lot of luck, because from one through nine, anyone can hit it out. It is very difficult to pitch against this team. You go out there with the confidence of putting up zeros, zero after zero, and let the offense do their job. But it’s very important for a pitcher to have confidence in your hitters.

What expectations have you set for yourself this season?

Urias: First of all, health, which is the main thing. One of my first goals was to have a good spring training and start the season in the big leagues with the team, something I had not done for three years, and this year I had the opportunity. I already achieved my first goal of the year. Now it is to stay healthy and stay up here all year with the team — that’s my second goal. And obviously the goal that all players have, that all my teammates have, and we’ve been at it the last two years, to get to the World Series and win it.

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