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The Dodgers’ phenom is here

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers-Photo DayIn 1980, an unimposing, 5-foot-11 lefthander from Mexico named Fernando Valenzuela made his debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers at the age of 19. He didn’t allow an earned run in 17.2 innings that year and followed that up in 1981 by becoming the first player to ever win the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young awards. He began that season by posting five shutouts and allowing just two earned runs through his first seven starts. He ended it as the best player on a World Series champion. Through it all, Valenzuela was so beloved by Los Angeles’ large Latino – specifically, Mexican – community, his starts became must-see events. The craze was known as “Fernandomania.”

Thirty-five years later, there’s another 19-year-old, 5-foot-11 lefty from Mexico ready to become the Dodgers’ next phenom. And he will begin his journey tonight.

That’s Julio Urias, a pitcher whom MLB.com has listed as a top-10 prospect two years running. He will take on the Mets at Citi Field, and the Dodgers clearly believe he is ready for such high-end competition. They could have called up someone else and held Urias back until next week’s home series versus the pitiful Braves. Instead, he will be thrown into into the orange and blue flames tonight. Urias has done nothing to second-guess his preseason rankings as he has a 1.10 ERA and a 44:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 41 innings at Triple-A Oklahoma City.  He threw six no-hit innings in a start earlier this month.

Urias does compare slightly to Valenzuela as a pitcher, but that doesn’t mean he will throw a bunch of shutouts right away – it’s a different era. However, Urias pitches with more power and better control. His career K-to-walk rate through more than 250 minor league innings is better than 3:1. Scouts have marveled at his feel for pitching at such a young age, and there was a belief that Urias was MLB-ready last year, at the age of 18, when he was baffling mature hitters in Double-A. Even at age 16, Urias was striking out more than 11 men per nine with a sub-2.50 ERA and a WHIP barely over 1.10. He is a player well beyond his years.

Urias has a full repertoire of pitches, too. A mid-90s fastball, an excellent changeup, a developing curveball and a slider. He can throw all of those pitches for strikes and spot them on different horizontal and vertical planes. His combination of age and stuff has led to comparisons with not so much Valenzuela, but Felix Hernandez.

Felix was the last pitcher to debut at such a young age. Bryce Harper was game’s most recent teenage hitter. Those players had a surplus of hype surrounding their first games, and it should be no different with Urias. I won’t be able to watch tonight’s game because living in Los Angeles and seeing the Dodgers on TV is not something many people can do around here. Also, I’ll be at Angel Stadium for Astros-Angels. Because who needs to watch the game’s next great arm introduce himself when you can just go see Mike Fiers battle Matt Shoemaker, right?

Anyway, I’m just giddy and glad that Urias is here. He looks like the nerdy, scrawny babyface who gets bullied by the jocks in high school. But he is about to make a bunch of grown men look stupid. I’m not sure how many starts he will make; the Dodgers will monitor his pitch and inning counts very closely and may stick him in the bullpen for this season. But for one night, everyone should want to see what he brings. Maybe he won’t produce anything close to “Fernandomania” in the long run, but if he is as good as billed, I, for one, welcome the age of “U-phoria”

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