When the Detroit Tigers signed right-hander Jose Urena to a one-year, $3.25 million contract this offseason, general manager Al Avila’s decision was met with skepticism.
Remember, the 29-year-old had a 5.25 ERA for the Miami Marlins in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. More importantly, one-year rentals for starting pitchers don’t often work in Detroit’s favor — they seem to spend more time on the injured list than in the rotation. And Avila does not have a history of flipping starting pitchers for gold mines at the trade deadline.
“Jose has a great ability to navigate a lineup and limit damage while keeping his team in the game,” Avila said when the signing became official in late December, “which is exactly the stability we’re looking for heading into the 2021 season.”
After two rocky starts, Urena is beginning to meet those expectations.
He has pitched well in back-to-back starts — against the Oakland Athletics on April 16 and the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday. He tossed seven innings of two-run ball in each of those contests. Still, the Tigers lost to the Pirates, 4-2, at Comerica Park and have dropped six of their last seven games.
“We had some opportunities to pound the strike zone against them,” manager AJ Hinch said after losing the three-game series. “I thought he did a good job of that. That made him very efficient. He had some short innings.”
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On Thursday, Urena gave up two runs on five hits and one walk, with two strikeouts, in his seven innings. The offense generated a measly two runs, and the bullpen — Jose Cisnero and Gregory Soto, specifically — squandered his dominance by allowing two runs in the eighth inning.
Against the A’s last week, the Tigers lost, 3-0. Urena struck out eight batters and allowed two runs on seven hits and two walks. Once again, the offense failed to support him.
Battling the Pirates, Urena needed just 89 pitches (52 strikes) to cruise: 20 pitches in the first inning, 12 in the second, 14 in the third, 13 in the fourth, 13 in the fifth, five in the sixth and 12 in the seventh. He gave up his two runs in the first inning on two RBI singles but didn’t stumble again.
“I put it in my mindset that I got to stop those guys,” Urena said. “We were trying to get quick outs and trying to be aggressive in the strike zone. If I do all that, and try to attack, we can take advantage.”
Urena threw 38 sinkers, 22 sliders, 22 four-seam fastballs and seven changeups. He got eight swings-and-misses — three with his sinker, three with his slider and two with his four-seamer. He added 12 called strikes.
The movement and command of his power sinker and cutting-edge slider helped him force 10 ground-ball outs.
“I feel pretty good,” Urena said. “But that’s something that we like to do together. Everybody puts something in, like defensively and offensively. Everybody tries to do their best and figure out, like quick outs and trying to make a play. That makes me feel good.”
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But the Tigers’ offense collapsed in one of the biggest moments of the game. Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo stood on second base when JaCoby Jones — who tied the score with a homer in the fifth inning — singled up the middle in the seventh inning with one out.
It should’ve been the go-ahead run.
Until Baddoo hesitated on his jump to third base.
Third base coach Chip Hale had to stop him from turning the corner and running toward home plate. The next two batters — Robbie Grossman and Willi Castro — flied out with Baddoo standing on third base.
The newcomer’s miscue halted the momentum.
“We didn’t make enough winnable plays,” Hinch said. “You give them a little extra opportunity here or there, or an extra 90 feet here or there, it comes back to bite you a little bit. We’ve been playing a few of these close games where we’ve lost, you can go back to execution. Who concedes 90 feet, or who concedes an out or an extra pitch?”
Despite the mistakes, Urena was still excellent for the second time in a row. If he continues to repeat his success from his last two starts, the Tigers won’t complain about their free-agent addition from this past winter.
And neither will the fans.
“When we signed him, we really wanted to him eat some innings but also be good,” Hinch said. “It’s one thing to be able to throw 100 pitches. You get into May and June, he’s going to throw 100, 110, 115, whatever it is. That’s one thing, to be able to log those innings. He’s done that in the past.
“We want him to be good, get the ball on the ground and let us make plays behind him. We would like that to continue because, as a veteran presence, he can make an impact on our club.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.