From TBA to center stage: World Series Game 4 starters Julio Urias, Ryan Yarbrough turn flexibility into strength

A pair of lefties will make the first World Series starts of their careers when the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays match up in Saturday night’s Game 4, a tribute to their skill and perseverance and the decidedly non-linear path developing players often walk.

Ryan Yarbrough has a 16-win season to his credit. Julio Urias saved the Dodgers not once, but twice in their heart-stopping conquest of the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series.

And while the pitchers’ arsenals vary greatly – Urias’ heavy fastball touches 94 mph, while Yarbrough would be likelier to break 90 in the 2001 Buick Century he drove to his major league debut – they share a humbling commonality that belie their accomplishments.

On almost any day, both pitchers wake up not knowing what their next outing may look like – to start, to open, to serve as a “bulk guy” or perhaps a fireman.

Gone are the days when a World Series meant four pitching matchups locked in before Game 1, perhaps subject to an adjustment if a team trailed 3-1 entering Game 4 and returned to its ace to save the season.

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In 2020, it means Urias didn’t get his World Series Game 4 assignment until he was not used in Game 2 – a game started by rookie Tony Gonsolin, who was not informed of his role until the night before.

And it means Yarbrough pitched in relief in Game 1 and learned he’d start Game 4 only after a bevy of relievers were needed in relief of starter Charlie Morton in Friday’s Game 3 – thus scotching the Rays’ hopes of using an “opener” to spare the softer-throwing Yarbrough a first trip through the Dodger lineup.

Both pitchers are accustomed to sleeping with one eye open and in October, individual dreams are deferred.

“That’s what makes this team so successful – there’s no egos, everyone buys in, especially in the playoffs,” Yarbrough said Friday. “Whatever they need you to do to win ballgames is what I’m focused on.

“It’s about hoisting up that trophy at the end of the year.”

The Rays are in their first World Series since 2008, arguably the industry leaders in innovation since Andrew Friedman built that first Series team before leaving in 2014 to run the Dodgers. The current generation has won nearly 60% of its games the last three seasons, while trotting out the “opener” strategy – using a reliever to start a game before handing off to a “bulk guy” who in simpler times started the game.

The strategy has spread, in varying degrees, for better or worse, to all 30 clubs. Combined with the fact pitchers are brought along with greater care – or restrictions – than ever, and it adds up to “TBA” serving as the most popular pitcher in the game.

That the two best teams in 2020 are just as unsure of their plans on the game’s biggest stage is either a tribute to, or an indictment of, their ability to place their young pitchers in positions to succeed.

Deferred glory

Urias was just 19 years old when he made his first playoff start, a truncated outing against the Chicago Cubs in the 2016 National League Championship Series. Despite the Dodgers’ constant October presence, he waited nearly four years to make his next one, when they were down 2-0 in this year’s NLCS to the Atlanta Braves.

Urias proceeded to save their season twice in a week, pitching five innings in a Game 3 win and then three perfect, sparkling innings to carry them over the finish line in Game 7.

Julio Urias will get the ball to start Game 4 for the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Photo: Tim Heitman, USA TODAY Sports)

The four years between starts were filled with multiple detours, most notably shoulder surgery that limited him to eight appearances in 2017 and 2018, and a 20-game suspension in 2019 for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy.

The past two seasons brought flashes of the skills that have tantalized Dodgers fans since they signed him out of Mexico for a reported $1 million bonus and he rose quickly onto their prospect lists.

He’s appeared in 48 games, accumulating a 1.11 WHIP while starting, opening, serving long relief and performing other duties that fall under the catchall “out-getter” designation.

In years past, a rotation now headed by Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler was also buttressed by Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill, Ross Stripling and others. Three were jettisoned in the off-season and Stripling traded in August.

While Urias started 10 of 11 games this year, his usage varied and his pitch count never touched 100. The playoffs brought no further clarity of role, with Kershaw and Buehler the only starters locked in, a scenario that might have chafed Urias in the past.

A sparkling five-inning relief outing to win Game 3 of the NL Division Series against San Diego certainly moved the needle. His NLCS work was nothing short of heroic.

That meant Friday night, Urias would sleep knowing what awaited him in Game 4.

“The plan’s a little different; it’s the notion of going out there and thinking more like a starter,” Urias said through an interpreter Friday. “I have experience now in both situations. I like starting, I like being in the bullpen. I’m just happy to have the opportunity and am ready for tomorrow.”

Urias is halfway to free agency and doesn’t have any more than 15 starts in a season to his credit. But manager Dave Roberts is confident the club moved with appropriate caution in bringing along the now 24-year-old.

“You can debate whether we were too careful with him, we didn’t push him enough, but I appreciate that Julio is going to have a great career, and I do think the foundation of taking care of him in his early years, to allow him to go forward and have a great career years beyond being with the Dodgers or he chooses to stay with the Dodgers, I think that’s a part of it,” says Roberts, who lauded Urias for keeping an open mind.

“That’s not easy for an organization to do. I appreciate that he understands that whatever we did was best for him and his career.”

'Extremely lucky'

Yarbrough, 28, lacked Urias’s pedigree; he was a fourth-round, senior draftee by the Mariners out of Old Dominion in 2014. Seattle dealt him and Mallex Smith in a package for Drew Smyly in January 2017.

Then, the Rays’ player-development apparatus went to work. They convinced Yarbrough to integrate a cutter into his repertoire, the better to play off his other pitches. Like almost every Rays pitcher, he’s effusive in his praise of pitching coach Kyle Snyder.

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Ryan Yarbrough is ready to take the mound to start Game 4. (Photo: Orlando Ramirez, Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)

“This is probably one of the best things to ever happen to me, being in this organization, especially with them being known for their pitching development,” says Yarbrough. “I’ve been extremely lucky every year having Kyle Snyder as my pitching coach – extremely understanding who I am as a pitcher, what I do really well and emphasizing those strengths.

“With the Rays and their development and their analytics they can help me understand what makes you successful was huge.”

His rookie season of 2018 was a whirlwind, beginning with Snyder imploring Yarbrough to drive his beloved, creaky Buick to Tropicana Field for his debut. Soon, Yarbrough developed into one of manager Kevin Cash’s favorite “bulk guys,” coming in after an opener to consume several innings.

Just call him a new-school vulture: Yarbrough won 16 games that year, 14 out of the bullpen. He has 28 career wins, but has started just 29 games.

As odd as that part of his resume is, Yarbrough’s 3.94 ERA and 1.16 career WHIP are, possibly, testaments to the Rays putting him in the best position to succeed, even with an 88-mph fastball in an era most pitchers tick closer to 100.

“Understanding how your pitches move and how they’re effective with analytics was the biggest part” he says of his staying power.

He’ll get the biggest assignment of his career Saturday night, opposed by another guy whose job description also fits the “Whatever, Whenever” mold. Despite the starts and stops and role changes, Yarbrough and Urias both inspire confidence in their teammates.

“I’ve always known the potential Julio has,” says Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes. “The demeanor he has, the temperament he has, he’s kind of made for this kind of baseball. He’s not scared up there, that’s for sure.

“We love when Julio’s out there. He’s made some big pitches out there, thrown some big innings and I think he’s going to continue doing that for us.”

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