The same Julio Urías, the same dominant weapon the Dodgers have watched emerge since last summer, toed the mound Wednesday night. He was electric again, continuing a year-long stretch in which he has become one of the best starting pitchers in the major leagues.
What was different Wednesday at Oracle Park, as he sliced through the San Francisco Giants for six innings before finding some bad luck in the seventh, was his place in the Dodgers’ plans.
Urias’ role for the postseason isn’t uncertain this time around — not after the Dodgers failed to acquire a starting pitcher before Tuesday’s trade deadline. As it stands, he’s not a piece that will shift between the starting rotation and bullpen in October. He’s a bona fide starter. He just might be the ace the club needs.
“He’s really important,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said before the Dodgers’ 3-0 win. “Obviously, what he’s done and performed, and how he’s performed as a starting pitcher, the swing and miss, the length, the efficiency, the stuff. So, yeah, we’re counting on Julio, absolutely.”
Urías, 25, has converted his potential as a teenager to reality over the past 13 months, posting the lowest ERA in the majors since July 1 last year. The major injuries are behind him. He is one of the most important players on the Dodgers’ roster. He supplied more evidence Wednesday.
The left-hander limited the Giants to four hits with six strikeouts and no walks over six scoreless innings until he yielded three singles — two that didn’t leave the infield — to start the seventh at Oracle Park.
He was visibly angry about his misfortune when Roberts emerged to pull him after 96 pitches with a 3-0 lead, giving Roberts the ball without looking at him on his way off the field. Roberts chose to play it safe.
It was the right move: Evan Phillips slithered out of the jam with help from boneheaded Giants baserunning. When it was over, Urías’ ERA this season had dropped to 2.57, the fourth-best mark in the National League. He’s reached another level over his last four starts, giving up three runs in 26 innings behind a fastball that has gained velocity since the start of the season.
“We’ve made some adjustments during my bullpens,” Urías said. “And I feel like that’s been a key to the results lately.”
The Dodgers entered Wednesday with the best starter ERA (2.81) and the second-best starter FIP (3.49) in the majors. Their rotation doesn’t have a glaring hole a year after they lost Trevor Bauer to suspension and acquired Max Scherzer to replace him.
But there are questions about the current group.
Injuries have limited Andrew Heaney to five starts. Tony Gonsolin is showing cracks after an unforeseen All-Star first half. Tyler Anderson has never pitched in a playoff game. Clayton Kershaw has spent a month on the injured list with a back injury after suffering a major elbow at the end of last season that nearly required Tommy John surgery.
So, the front office would have preferred to trade for a frontline starting pitcher – in addition to outfielder Juan Soto — by the trade deadline to bolster the group. Luis Castillo, Frankie Montas, and Pablo López headlined the options available. But the team found the market too expensive. Castillo went to the Seattle Mariners. Montas was sent to the New York Yankees. López stayed with the Miami Marlins.
On Tuesday, Andrew Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations, projected confidence in his pitching staff anyway, pointing to the talent sitting on the injured list that should improve the bunch, in some combination, for the playoffs.
Walker Buehler, Dustin May, Brusdar Graterol, Blake Treinen, Victor González, Tommy Kahnle, and Danny Duffy are all pitchers the Dodgers believe have a chance of returning down the stretch.
“We have a really talented group that some combination of those guys coming back, and it’s really high end to add that quality to the guys we have in place right now,” Friedman said. “It just spoke to having a high bar. We feel really good about the potential of what our pitching staff can look in October. We’re not relying on all of them coming back and being great.”
Roberts echoed Friedman on Wednesday.
“It’s collectively,” Roberts said. “It’s about the pitching staff. And when you’re talking about winning one game or 11 games in October, we just feel with the compilation of pitchers that we have we can prevent runs for 27 outs. And there’s no one way to do it. It’s essentially just confidence in how we can do this collectively.”
Of those seven pitchers on the IL, only Buehler and May are starters, but may return as relievers. The others, if healthy and effective, could help lighten the burden on the rotation.
May made his third start on rehab assignment with triple-A Oklahoma City on Wednesday. The hard-throwing right-hander, who underwent Tommy John surgery last May, gave up one run on two hits with six strikeouts over four innings. He’s surrendered two runs with 15 strikeouts in nine innings across his three starts. Roberts said he expects May to make one more before returning to the Dodgers.
Buehler’s prognosis is far hazier. He started throwing less than two weeks ago, six weeks after he was shut down with a flexor tendon strain. There probably won’t be enough time to build him up for more than three or four innings before the postseason. A relief role is on the table.
“I think anything is possible,” Friedman said. “A lot of it depends on when he gets off the mound and when that progression starts.”
Buehler solidified himself as a playoff star in his first four seasons. He was given the start in Game 1 in 2020 and again in 2021. It’ll be Urías’ turn in 2022 if he stays on track.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.