NEW YORK – Julio Urias, the kid with the half-closed left eye and the golden left arm, is 19 years old. In some ways he looked like it on Friday. He has a Mohawk and wears prescription Ray-Bans, and after arriving at Citi Field at 3 o’clock he sat in front of his locker with Beats over his ears, watching Mexican music videos on his iPad while spinning a yellow baseball in his glove. Stretched over his feet, underneath his shower shoes, were yellow and blue socks printed with the name, number and image of Stephen Curry.
In the ways that count, though, he seemed older, in the hours before he would debut for the Dodgers and make his bid to join their tradition of southpaw phenoms, which stretches back eight years to Clayton Kershaw, 26 years to Fernando Valenzuela and 61 years to Sandy Koufax. He betrayed no nerves. At 4 p.m., Yasiel Puig, the last rookie Dodgers sensation, walked in wearing aviators, a black t-shirt with a bandana print and two gold chains. He ran his fingers across Urias’s shoulders. “Sup,” Urias said calmly, before returning to his videos.
Baseball tradition holds that nobody is supposed to talk to that day’s starter. Urias clearly didn’t care. In the clubhouse, he took photos and joked with Adrian Gonzalez, the Dodgers’ Mexican-American first baseman, and a few Spanish-language broadcasters, to memorialize what was sure to be a special evening. If he were the type of 19-year-old pitcher who might be rattled by a pre-start photo or joke, he wouldn’t have been called up to pitch in the majors at 19. It had been 11 years since the last time someone so young had done so, since Felix Hernandez for the Mariners.
Around 4:10 p.m., Kershaw came in from working out. “It’s kinda humid in here,” the three-time Cy Young winner complained, surveying the several dozen members of the media who milled about, because it was New York and because Urias was three hours from his debut. “Too many bodies.” Kershaw explained that Urias was the game’s top pitching prospect—and considered by many to be a once-in-a-generation talent—for a reason. “He’s got four legit pitches,” Kershaw said. “That’s more than I have now. He’s gonna be just fine.”
Urias’s family had supported his baseball career when he was a child in Sinaloa, not so long ago, when people whispered that the reason his left eye drooped was because he had terminal cancer and not just a benign growth. His family flew up to New York after the Dodgers had announced the day before that he would be making his debut: his father and his little brother, both named Carlos; his mother, Juana; his younger sister, Alexia. They stood on the warning track behind home plate during batting practice, taking it all in. “Please let them know that I’m going to take very good care of their son,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said to a translator as he put his arms around them. Roberts had indicated that Urias would be limited to 90 pitches.
It felt like a historic day, and the record will show that the first pitch that Julio Urias ever threw in the majors was a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, up and a little in to Mets’ leadoff man Curtis Granderson. Urias had left Triple-A Oklahoma City in the midst of a 27 inning scoreless streak, and in New York he extended it to 27 2/3 innings. That’s where it would end. The Mets, last year’s N.L. champions, made him work like no opponent in this year’s Pacific Coast League had.
In the first, they followed two hard-hit doubles and with two hard-hit singles—the last by catcher Kevin Plawecki, who broke an 0-for-17 slump—and took a 3–0 lead. After a relatively efficient bottom of the second, Urias got two outs in the third and then yielded another hard single and then two walks. He was already at 81 pitches, just 42 of them strikes, and his limit approached. Roberts came to get him.
It will be remembered as a disappointing debut for Urias. Everyone wanted more than 2 2/3 innings of five-hit, four-walk, three-run baseball from him. But it was not the first time Urias stumbled out of the gate. When he first got to Triple A, in late August of 2015, he allowed three earned runs in a single inning of work in his first start, and six earned runs in 3 1/3 innings in his second. He was more than eight and a half years younger than the league’s average player. Over his next eight starts, he allowed five runs, in total.
On Friday in New York, Urias really showed only half of himself. We saw his fastball, which he ran up to 96, and his slider. But we barely saw the other two advanced pitches that Kershaw had previewed: he threw his changeup only three times, and his curve just twice. Half-Urias seemed sure to be saddled with a whole loss, as the Dodgers entered the top of the 9th trailing 5–1, but a four-run rally allowed him to avoid that fate.
Chase Utley, the 37-year-old second baseman, had spent most of the day being compared to various undesirable bodily excretions—it was his first game in New York since he broke the leg of former Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada on a slide during last year’s playoffs—but he struck the tying blow with a bases-loaded double against Mets closer Jeurys Familia, unhooking the rookie. Then, Curtis Granderson led off the bottom of the ninth with a home run down the right field line, and the Dodgers lost anyway.
Afterwards, in Citi Field’s press conference room, Urias admitted that he had been nervous. “I was,” he said via a club translator. “I’m not going to lie.” He conceded that on the advice of his pitching coach, Rick Honeycutt, and catcher, Yasmani Grandal, he slimmed down his repertoire to simplify things for his first start. Still, he said, “This is the best day of my life.”
One day, we might look back at the night that the Mets scored three runs in only 2 2/3 of an inning against the great Julio Urias and wonder how that was possible, after years of exposure to his full repertoire. Or Friday night might portend a career of tremendous disappointment. Who knows? He is still so young. As he walked back to the Dodgers’ clubhouse from his first press major league press conference, after he’d hugged and kissed his awaiting family, he flipped his hat around backwards.