Young Dodgers lefty learning about his body, hoping to build on promising '16
By Jesse Sanchez
CULIACAN, Mexico -- The corner of Alfonso Calderon Boulevard and Rolando Arjona is buzzing.
Car horns are blaring and 18-wheelers are speeding in both directions. There are motorcycles -- lots of them -- and they are inching closer and closer to the sides of the vehicles that have come to a screeching halt at the traffic light.
The thumping mix of Mexican banda music provides the soundtrack. The car next to Julio Urias' plays romantic music at full blast with the windows down.
It's just past 9 a.m. in the Tres Rios section of town and the Dodgers' pitching phenom is on his way to the baseball complex at La Academia y el Museo Interactivo del Beisbol de Sinaloa to work out. His city is alive and so is he.
This is Urias' Culiacan. He's "Culichi" proud and wears a blue hoodie with the nickname for locals and his jersey No. 7 across his chest to prove it. He wears a blue flat-brimmed cap with the same "Culichi 7" logo almost everywhere he goes.
"This is the city where I was raised, where I was born, and I try to come here every time I can to prepare myself," Urias, 20, said in Spanish. "Everybody loves me here, they support me a lot. It's nice when you come here after a long season and see the way they welcome you, it's incredible."
Urias grew up around five minutes from the baseball academy -- which partnered with Major League Baseball last summer -- off of a couple of dirt roads in the small town of La Higuerita. He still lives there with his parents. Yes, he's become a local hero, but he's the same guy who signed with the Dodgers back in 2012. He drives a new but not flashy SUV and he wears almost no new jewelry. The pitcher has added on to his parents' house, extending the back patio, but mostly to make it the perfect spot to grill carne asada and host family birthday parties.
Workers inside the academy were not sure who Urias was, but they knew he was somebody when he walked through the door. One woman asked for a photo, but her co-workers didn't have a camera. She asked for an autograph and then asked to borrow a pen.
A few laughs later, the young pitcher is on the field stretching by 9:30 a.m. under the watchful eye of Rafael "Rox" Arroyo, a former Minor League player and big league bullpen catcher for the Mets. Arroyo has made a name for himself as the go-to trainer for Urias, Nationals pitcher Oliver Perez and other players in Mexico.
"We jump on the field first for some training, then we work out at the gym and then we have some lunch, my favorite time of the day actually because I eat lunch with my whole family," Urias said. "After that, in the afternoon, I like to go get some massage therapy. That's been my routine lately, you know, to get some recovery. That's basically my day. Then I end up having dinner with my whole family as well."
Urias' arm has always been advanced for his age, but now he wants the rest of his body to catch up. He reached out to Arroyo three years ago through social media when the pitcher was still in Class A ball after watching Arroyo help Perez resurrect his career. On this day, Arroyo's list of pupils includes Urias; former Major League pitcher Ramiro Pena; Mario Meza, who signed a Minor League deal with the Cubs in November; and Mexican League pitcher Amilcar Gaxiola. Pena is feeling especially giddy. He just signed a deal with Hiroshima to play in Japan.
Perez met the group at the gym and was on an exercise bike when Urias walked in 90 minutes later.
"Physically, [Urias] is getting to know and learn about his body," Arroyo said. "He's learning about the importance of nutrition and diet to carry him through a long season. He asks a lot of questions and you can tell he's taking an initiative to understand and learn about the workouts."
Urias' workouts usually include light throwing, conditioning and specific weight training four or five days a week. He plans to report to Spring Training sometime during the second week of February in better shape than last season and expects to compete for a job in the starting rotation.
"I learned some lessons [last season], but I think the most important ones were my first two games in the big leagues," Urias said. "I had a nice streak in Triple-A of 25 or more innings without allowing a run and then I started those two games in the Majors. I wouldn't say I got discouraged, but those two games really got me to think, 'OK, I got the opportunity, what's going to happen to me now?' But thank God I never quit on myself and just continued to battle and prepare, and at the end, everything went well for me."
Urias finished with a 5-2 record, a 3.39 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 77 innings for the Dodgers last season. Including the Minors, he pitched a career-high 122 innings in 2016, which is part of the reason the club is considering keeping him in extended spring training this year to limit his innings.
"Right now, they've not talked to me about it, but I talked to my agent and he said that they're going to add some innings to my pitch count this year," Urias said. "But like I said, my job is to prepare for whatever amount of innings they ask me to pitch. Whatever they ask me to do, I'll do it, always with my head held high, understanding that if they want to be careful with me and limit my innings, that's fine with me as well. And if they want me to pitch, I have no problem with that."
Urias' next big pitch will come Wednesday, when he throws out the ceremonial first pitch before Mexico's first game in this year's Caribbean Series at Estadio Tomateros, the city's most famous ballpark. His good friend, Perez, will be in Mexico's dugout. Arroyo and the rest of Urias' workout team will be in the stands.
"Culiacan means the world to Julio and he means everything to the city as well," Arroyo said. "This town has a lot of pride and it's very passionate about baseball as well. He carries the country on his sleeve and it's the other way around, too."
Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.