Julio Urías walked off the diamond Friday, moments after Mexico took their team photo at Chase Field, and received the front of his white jersey, with Mexico written in red.
“Se ve bonito, no?” he asked.
Doesn’t it look nice?
Urías has played with the Mexican jersey before. Often. In his childhood he was invited to participate in the national teams, he traveled from his hometown of Culiacán to star in several international tournaments. It stopped when he signed with the Dodgers as a teenager nearly 11 years ago.
On Saturday, for the first time since his youth, Urías, 26, will play for his country again when he takes the mound against Colombia in the first game of Mexico’s Baseball Classic. He’ll be hitting the mound, not just as a Mexican ace or as the star of one of Major League Baseball’s flagship franchises. Like Shohei Ohtani for Japan, Miguel Cabrera for Venezuela and Mike Trout for the United States, Urías will participate in this tournament as the face of baseball for his country.
“He’s the biggest ambassador we have right now,” Mexico manager Benji Gil said. “It’s Fernando (Valenzuela). It’s Vinny Castilla in the 90s. It is Adrián (González) in the early 2000s. He is the face of Mexican baseball.”
Last summer, sitting in his locker at Dodger Stadium, Urías spoke glowingly about his team’s prospects. He went through the lineup, the rotation and the bullpen. He believed the club had a real chance to win it all. He could have been talking about the Dodgers, but he was talking about Mexico.
It wasn’t official yet, but Urías had committed to play in the WBC for the first time in Mexico. He would not be denied. The Dodgers didn’t clear him to play in the previous WBC in 2017, which he publicly admitted had molested him, but he was still a prospect back then. This time was different.
Urías was coming off a 20-win season to lead the National League in earned run average in 2021 and finish third in Cy Young voting last year. Injury concerns, after undergoing major shoulder surgery in 2017, intensified.
Dodgers pitcher Julio Urías warms up during a spring training game against the Cincinnati Reds on February 28.
(Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)
He didn’t mind becoming a free agent next winter, making the 2023 season perhaps the most important of his career. Other pitchers have gone into hiding in similar situations, fearing a setback could cost them millions of dollars. Urías is expected to be one of the top players in the upcoming free agent class. A rich long-term contract is on the table as a 27-year-old free agent — younger than most. He was willing to take the risk.
“I wanted to do this first for the Mexicans who wanted to see me wearing a Mexican jersey,” Urías said in Spanish last month. “I wanted to give them that. They have given me that support every day. It’s special.”
After 11 years in the majors, Rodrigo López, color analyst for the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Spanish-language radio show, spoke with Urías for the first time at Chase Field last season about the future of the Mexican team. Lopez had not yet been named CEO.
They reunited in the season when the Dodgers returned to Arizona and López was drafted into his position. He remembered that Urías spoke enthusiastically about the group. He conveyed this enthusiasm to the other players he targeted, letting Urías know that he wanted to play to gather the best team possible.
“That created a domino effect,” Lopez said. “And that’s what we’re seeing today.”
On paper, Urías will lead the deepest roster Mexico has ever built for a WBC. Established major leaguers José Urquidy, Taijuan Walker and the Angels’ Patrick Sandoval round out the rotation. Alex Verdugo, Randy Arozarena, Joey Meneses, Luis Urías and Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes’ crop of position players.
Mexico are expected to advance from Group C with the United States after the club were knocked out in a controversial draw in 2017. The country has never finished better than sixth in 2006.
“I think everything is coming together in the right way,” said Urías.
A strong showing would represent another step in the growth of baseball in Mexico from Urías’ announced prospect to providing the final pitch to complete the Dodgers’ 2020 World Series run.
“He’s an icon,” Lopez said in Spanish. “I think, right now, baseball in Mexico cannot be identified without Julio.”
Castilla, Mexico’s bench coach, held that position in the Mexican baseball hierarchy during his 16-year major league career. The third baseman from Oaxaca took over for Valenzuela, who made two All-Star teams with the Colorado Rockies and hit 320 home runs for six teams. He felt the pressure that came with the unofficial title.
“Julio is the greatest representative, the man who put the name of Mexico on top with the Dodgers,” Castilla said in Spanish. “You have to applaud him because he wants to be here with us, because he wants to represent his country. I am happy that Julio is with us, because he is an inspiration to many”.
Gil said he chose Urías to pitch Saturday — rather than save Sunday’s sold-out game against powerhouse USA — hoping to start in the quarterfinals in Miami if Mexico gets through pool play.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who starts, it’s going to be a tough game,” Gil said of the matchup against the Americans. “So why not start with our ace and start from the right?”
WBC rules limit a pitcher to 65 pitches per outing in pool play. Those may be the only ones that Urías throws in this tournament. The face of Mexican baseball has been waiting.