“I remember going to New York, the fans, how crazy [it was],” Urshela told The Post in a recent interview. “The emotions of that game.”
That would be 2017 ALDS Game 4, in which the Yankees registered a 7-3 victory over the Indians, tying the series at 2-2 and setting the stage for a memorable Game 5 back in Cleveland. The Yankees’ first five runs were unearned, courtesy of two errors by … Urshela, Cleveland’s third baseman.
The last time the Yankees hosted ALDS action — their season-ending, 4-3 loss to the Red Sox in Game 4 nearly a year ago — Urshela didn’t view it all. His 2018 season had completed over a month earlier, when he went 1-for-4 as the starting shortstop in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s 3-2 defeat of Pawtucket. He held the rather undesirable status of “minor league free agent.”
Back home in Colombia, “I didn’t see [any] of it,” Urshela said of the Major League Baseball playoffs.
Fast-forward to now, the ALDS arriving at Yankee Stadium for a third straight season, the Yankees taking on the Twins in Friday night’s Game 1. Urshela’s rather circuitous journey brings him back in the big-league postseason, wearing the iconic pinstripes for the most enjoyable time of the year — shockingly a crucial cog in the Yankees’ ambitions to win their first World Series since 2009 (the year Urshela debuted professionally).
In this injury-infested season that featured so many stunning falls — the Yankees set a known record by losing 2,433 days to the injured list, according to Major League Baseball — and rises, Urshela proved to be, if you’ll forgive the phrasing, the Nextest Man Up. Of the many unlikely saviors that emerged to save and propel their campaign, he contributed the most, posting a slash line of .314/.355/.534 while playing adequate-at-worst defense at the hot corner, and he lasted the longest. And the Yankees sure hope he hasn’t finished being next yet.
“The bottom line is the young man deserves a lot of credit,” said Tim Naehring, the Yankees’ vice president of baseball operations. “… I’m really happy for him. [He has] helped us achieve what we’ve been able to do so far.”
Flash back to last offseason, which began for the Yankees right after that ALDS Game 4. The first piece of bad news arrived three days later, with general manager Brian Cashman’s announcement that Didi Gregorius would require Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and wouldn’t be ready for Opening Day 2019. Just like that, the Yankees’ infield became a major focal point, and with each subsequent month, the plot thickened:
- In early November, the Yankees learned third baseman Miguel Andujar had finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.
- In December, the Yankees welcomed high-profile free agent Manny Machado, who clearly wanted to play for them and whose availability generated strong reactions from fans, to the Stadium for a visit.
- In January, the Yankees officially signed free agents Troy Tulowitzki, a shortstop, and DJ LeMahieu, a second baseman whom they envisioned playing all over the diamond, effectively ending their lukewarm pursuit of Machado and infuriating a sizable portion of that fan base (while pleasing others).
- By the time the Yankees completed their season-opening homestand, both Andujar (right shoulder) and Tulowitzki (left calf) had suffered serious injuries; Andujar tried coming back briefly in May before undergoing season-ending surgery, and Tulowitzki never returned, retiring in July. Throw in a slew of other early injuries, with Dellin Betances, Aaron Hicks, Luis Severino and Giancarlo Stanton among those sidelined, and the Yankees’ young season appeared in crisis.
The crisis never materialized thanks to a series of additions that added up to far, far less than the $300 million the Padres committed to Machado. LeMahieu, who cost $24 million over two years, became the Yankees’ most valuable player. Little-known Mike Tauchman, whom the Yankees acquired from the Rockies shortly before breaking camp, produced in an outfield that missed Hicks and Stanton for most of the season — and Aaron Judge for a significant chunk — before going down himself. Princeton product Mike Ford, an undrafted free agent signed by the Yankees in 2013, helped fill the void created by ailments to Luke Voit (himself an Arbitrage All-Star in 2018) and in-season acquisition Edwin Encarnacion.
“Obviously, each one of these guys that have provided value — the next man up, if you will — all of them have had certain parts of their game that were very good,” Naehring said, “and we knew that there was value there.”
Unearthing Urshela’s value — he finished the season with 3.4 wins above replacement, as per Baseball-Reference.com, whereas Machado tallied 3.1 WAR with the Pads — might become this Yankees front office’s Mona Lisa.
By the time the Yankees upset the Indians in the 2017 ALDS, Urshela had clocked 148 regular-season games with Cleveland and hit .225/.273/.314 in 453 plate appearances. He had gained a reputation as a nice glove, his two October errors against the Yankees notwithstanding, and a weak bat.
So when Urshela never played again for the Indians, the team that signed him for $300,000 in 2008, after that ALDS, it barely created a ripple. Rather than activate Urshela off the disabled list (for a strained right hamstring) in May of last year, Cleveland designated him for assignment, trading him to the Blue Jays for cash considerations on May 9. Toronto employed him for 19 big-league games, during which he hit .233/.283/.326, and then outrighted him to Buffalo after Urshela’s second DFA in less than two months resulted in him clearing waivers.
On Aug. 4 of last year, in another non-rippling transaction, the Yankees purchased Urshela from the Blue Jays for $25,000 and assigned him to Scranton.
“There were people in our organization that were very high on him back in the Cleveland days,” Naehring said.
At Scranton, Urshela connected with hitting coach Phil Plantier. “Basically, what I saw with Gio, he’d been with a couple of different organizations, it was the end of the year — I think it gave him the opportunity to start over and get a fresh start,” Plantier said in a telephone interview. “There’s an element of timing that’s involved. Getting a guy at the right time.”
The Yankees’ offensive redesign of Urshela, and his willingness to execute their suggestions, all centered around the goal of barreling the ball more. Said Naehring: “We want guys that can control the zone and, when the pitch is in the zone, we want people that can impact the baseball.”
Plantier urged Urshela to increase the reliance on his legs, and Urshela opened his batting stance. He hit an improved .307/.340/.475 in 27 games with the RailRiders, and last Oct. 24 the Yankees quietly re-signed Urshela to a minor league deal that would pay him $600,000 in the majors and $150,000 in the minors as well as extend him an invitation to major league spring training.
“I liked the way they treated me,” Urshela said. “It’s a good organization. I learned a lot.” Asked if the presence of Andujar at third base gave him reservations over returning, Urshela said, “Nah, not really. I was ready for everything.”
He sure was. Urshela began the season with Scranton, playing in two games, before getting the call on April 6, and he quickly showed off his new hitting personality, hitting .345/.409/.500 for the duration of the month. It turned out he had further refined himself in spring training, picking up where he left off in ’18, with Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thames and his assistant P.J. Pilittere.
“I knew that I had power, that I could hit the ball well, but I didn’t know how to use that power,” Urshela said. “This year, I learned how to use it. Hitting the ball on the barrel and all that.”
It was partly mental, he said, “working on my confidence every day.” Mechanically, he got better at keeping his hands inside his body as he swung, which allowed him to finish with more authority.
“I used to cut my swing,” he said. “I hit the ball on the barrel but it didn’t go anywhere.”
The results have been striking, pun intended. As per MLB.com’s Statcast, of hitters with at least 25 big-league balls in play last year and at least 300 such balls this year, Urshela’s exit velocity increase of 4.8 miles per hour, from 85.7 last year to 90.5 in 2019, ranked second in baseball, behind only Arizona’s Christian Walker (4.9).
Asked if he was surprised by his success, Urshela said, “No. I’ve been working for this. I knew one day I was going to find out how I was going to put this in a game, and now I’m seeing the results.”
He’s not alone in his nonchalance. “He just needed an opportunity to play every day,” said Encarnacion, who was teammates with Urshela on the Indians in 2017 and 2018. “He’s got the talent. I know he can do it.”
“I don’t try to put limits on people,” Plantier said. “I’ve seen guys over the years do things they haven’t necessarily done in the past. Development never stops. You never know when a player is going to put it all together. So I wouldn’t say I was surprised.”
The surge of Urshela has created a positive dilemma for the 2020 Yankees, as Andujar’s return will create a logjam at third base. The Yankees sure as heck won’t sweat that one now, though. There’s a championship to win. Urshela knows what it’s like to be on the other side of a Stadium playoff game, and he knows, too, how it feels to be out of mind altogether. Now he’ll be in the optimal position, and he nodded when asked if he was looking forward to that.
“Yeah, for sure,” he said, smiling.
Next Goal Up. Can Urshela elevate his 2019 from remarkable to unforgettable? By now, who would rule it out for this player and this group?
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