What Detroit Tigers right-hander Jose Urena had going for him earlier this season is no more.
After signing a one-year, $3.25 million contract in the offseason, the 29-year-old made general manager Al Avila look good. He rattled off seven innings with two earned runs or less — for a 2.25 ERA — in four consecutive starts from April 16-May 2.
When the Tigers signed Urena, they never expected him to become an All-Star or anchor the starting rotation. Rather, they hoped he would eat innings, save the bullpen and keep his team in ballgames. He went above and beyond earlier this season.
Recently, Urena has not met those expectations.
“The way he’s throwing is a concern,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said after a 12-3 loss to the Houston Astros on Thursday night at Comerica Park. “We’d like him to be better. We’d like him to get deeper into games, and he’s going to keep working. He hasn’t looked the same since his injury, but he says he’s healthy.”
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Urena’s results have drastically changed since his injury May 26 against Cleveland. He was removed from the 1-0 win with two outs in the sixth inning, initially diagnosed with lower right forearm cramping.
Three days later, the Tigers placed Urena on the 10-day injured list with a right forearm strain. He missed one start before returning to the rotation.
In his four starts since then, Urena has a 12.89 ERA with 10 walks and seven strikeouts. His disappointing ERA is a product of 24 runs (21 earned runs) over 14⅔ innings. Opponents are hitting .366 against Urena during this span, as he struggles to throw his slider consistently, but promises health is not an issue.
“I feel good,” Urena said.
The seven-year MLB veteran carries a 2-8 record and 6.00 ERA, to go with 32 walks and 42 strikeouts, over 69 innings in 14 starts this season. He has conceded 51 runs, 46 earned.
“I got to keep my head up and keep fighting out there,” Urena said. “Sometimes, that is the game. It’s a long season, and you’re going to feel up and down. It’s tough when you struggle, but you’ve got to keep your mind right, try to do the best you can and keep working hard.”
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During Thursday’s loss, Urena surrendered six runs (four earned) on eight hits and two walks. He had one strikeout. Two errors from second baseman Willi Castro, and a few other infield miscues, didn’t help his chances.
But Urena didn’t give himself a chance, either.
Hinch removed Urena with two outs in the fourth inning in favor of lefty reliever Tyler Alexander.
“He got up to 95 (mph) today, so the velocity seems to be there,” Hinch said. “Some of them come out a little bit less than that. I don’t know if it’s a mental or physical issue for him.”
If the Tigers eventually send Urena to the bullpen, which always seemed like a possibility considering his sinker/slider makeup and previous command troubles, Alexander could join the starting rotation. Left-handed reliever Daniel Norris used to be a starter, but he is away from the team with an illness and hasn’t pitched well in 2021.
In Triple-A Toledo, right-hander Drew Hutchison has tossed 45 innings over nine starts, meaning he is stretched out. Righty Erasmo Ramirez is working through a rehab assignment. Calling up right-hander Logan Shore would give the organization a look at how the 26-year-old could fit into the future, but he has been on the injured list since June 10.
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Without many options, the Tigers need Urena to return to his old form.
“I know 100% I can get right back on track,” Urena said. “I just got to keep working hard and keep learning. If I make some mistakes, learn what happened and how I can get better.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.