Jason Urquidez posted a 2.86 ERA in 34.2 Hi-A innings before earning his promotion to the Triple-A squad. Although California League opponents batted under .200 against him, Urquidez wasn't anticipating a promotion, much less one that would skip over an entire minor league level.
"I was kind of blindsided with that," Urquidez told us.
With his time to showcase himself finally arriving, Urquidez experienced some initial jitters before working in his first Triple-A game.
"For a minute I was nervous in the bullpen, then I got out onto the field and it was like another game anywhere else I've ever pitched," he said. "I just went out there and had a lot of fun. I tried to just stick to my game plan, pitching-wise."
With the jump in competition between A-ball and Triple-A, Urquidez has needed to alter that game plan just slightly. He has been utilizing his teammates as a resource for gauging the differences between these more advanced hitters than those he faced in the California League.
"I have been picking their brains a little bit on just how to pitch guys up here," Urquidez said. "They're letting me know that if you make a mistake, [Triple-A hitters] are more apt to take advantage of that mistake. So you try to limit your mistakes as you do at any level, but where you can get away with some mistakes at the lower level, up here the guys definitely take advantage of it."
"It seems like they're looking for one pitch in a particular zone up here, so you can kind of set them up. You need to pitch up in the zone here, because they're always looking for pitches down where pitchers always want to throw. But if you're going to get the ball up, you want to pitch chest high, not leave it belt high, where they can crush the ball."
"[My teammates] told me to be confident up there, trust my stuff, and power pitch like what got me here," he concluded.
What got him here was an awful lot of hard work. Urquidez suffered a torn labrum that sidelined him for all of the 2006 season. All the time he spent in rehab was time that could have been spent getting experience against professional hitters. As a 25-year old reliever in the California League, this double-promotion was exactly what he needed to put his name back on the organizational map.
"I feel like this is where I belong more, since I lost 14 months to that labrum surgery," Urquidez said, citing Travis Buck and Brad Knox of the Sacramento River Cats as former teammates of his (at Arizona State and Central Arizona, respectively) who are playing well at Triple-A. "I was always down in the lower ranks where everybody was so much younger than me."
Urquidez was more of a strikeout pitcher pre-surgery than what he showed last season. He fanned 11.4 batters per nine innings at Yakima in 2005 before whiffing just 4.5 per nine last year between Yakima and South Bend. This year at Visalia, he got back up to 9.7 strikeouts for every nine innings pitched.
"My arm's back to what it used to be," claimed Urquidez. "I pitch the same. I have a different kind of changeup, but that's about it. I have a circle-change now whereas before, I threw a different kind of changeup - I don't know if it even had a name. It was just kind of a tumbling changeup."
"Last year at South Bend, I was throwing like 84-86 [MPH] on average. Pitching with that velocity, I actually learned how to pitch a little more; how to get ground ball outs and not try to overpower people. Now I'm throwing 89-91; I've got a little more speed on it, and there's a little more difference between my fastball and my offspeed."
Urquidez adds a plus-slider to that fastball/changeup combo that he considers his primary out pitch. Since Urquidez has three quality pitches in his arsenal and restored arm strength, I asked him whether the organization had spoken to him about the possibility of returning to the starter's role that he had at Arizona State.
"No, but I've definitely thought about it," he began. "I actually haven't heard anything about it. In Visalia, Eddie Romero went on the DL, and they asked who wants to start, and of course, everybody's hand flew up. It wound up being Chad Beck, but I wish I could have got a chance to start again, see what it was like, and see how I could perform as a starter. But you know, maybe the chance is out there in the future to start again sometime."
Urquidez paused for a second before hedging his statement.
"I'm just happy where I'm at, anyways. I just love pitching. It doesn't matter where I'm pitching."
Now that Urquidez is in Triple-A, he could be pitching in the major leagues at any given moment, particularly with a parent Arizona Diamondbacks team that has been decimated by injuries in recent weeks.
"Of course that's always in the back of my mind, but I don't know how long I'm up here for," reminded Urquidez. "I'm just going to do what I can and go do my job every time I'm asked to do it and go compete out there on the mound and have fun doing it. Hopefully I can stay up here, and hopefully I can move upward. Whatever I can do to stay up here and make a name for myself within the organization."
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