The Los Angeles Dodgers are in the driver's seat in the National League Championship Series.
Now, rookie Julio Urias can steer them to the brink of a World Series berth.
After defeating the Chicago Cubs 6-0 in Game 3 of the NLCS on Tuesday, the Dodgers hold a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven tussle. They're two victories away from their first trip to the Fall Classic since 1988.
So far this postseason, L.A. has started ace Clayton Kershaw, Japanese import Kenta Maeda and trade-deadline acquisition Rich Hill. Its bullpen, headlined by closer Kenley Jansen, has taken care of the rest.
In Game 4, however, skipper Dave Roberts will hand the ball to Urias, who will become the youngest starting pitcher in MLB playoff history at 20 years and 68 days old, per Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A. (h/t Adam McCalvy of MLB.com). He's slated to break Bret Saberhagen's record, as the Kansas City Royals starter was 20 years, 175 days old when he pitched in the 1984 ALCS.
No pressure, kid.
"Julio, I think that we expect him to just go out there and compete," Roberts said, per McCalvy. "Use his pitch mix and go after these guys, give us a chance to win a baseball game. It's what Julio has done all year long."
Specifically, it's what he did in the second half.
In 40.2 innings after the All-Star break, Urias posted a 1.99 ERA with 40 strikeouts. More impressively, he boasted a 1.26 ERA in 35.2 innings since Aug. 8. He has consistently shown the stuff of the standout stud Los Angeles believes he'll become.
Now, he can prove himself on baseball's biggest, brightest stage.
These Cubs are potent, even though they've scored zero runs in the last two games against L.A. Their lineup is stuffed with budding superstars who can change everything with a single swing.
If you're looking at backstory, Urias made two starts against the Cubs in the regular season.
On June 2, he yielded eight hits and five earned runs in five innings in a 7-2 loss at Wrigley Field. It was just the second start of his MLB career. He was still 19 years old. He was in the most historic, renowned ballpark in the National League. It wasn't exactly a fair display of his talent.
On Aug. 27, however, he pitched six innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts in a 3-2 victory at Chavez Ravine—where he'll pitch Wednesday night in front of a full-throated Southern California home crowd.
That second start made Urias feel "more comfortable" against the Cubs, per David Vassegh of AM 570 L.A. Sports.
But it's not predictive. The Cubs ranked second only to the mile-high Colorado Rockies among NL clubs in runs and OPS in the regular season. Urias could get whacked on Wednesday, like anyone else.
|Julio Urias: 2016 First Half vs. Second Half|
|Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com|
The burgeoning hurler appears poised for success, though. He's a different animal from the fresh call-up who took the mound back in June.
Urias is rested, having thrown just two innings since Sept. 29. Those two frames just happened to come in a winner-take-all NLDS Game 5 against the Washington Nationals. He had ice water in his veins during the outing, becoming the youngest MLB pitcher to ever win a postseason game.
And while this is a game the Dodgers would like to win, it's not one they need to win, so the expectations are marginally less weighty.
Not that Urias can't take it. The southpaw is still about a year shy of the legal U.S. drinking age, but Roberts called him "calm and cool," per Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Times.
"Some of it plays to the youthfulness, the naivete, and just not really understanding the gravity of this moment, which is great," Roberts said, per Moura.
For his part, Urias acknowledged the stakes.
"It's something you have to deal with," he said, per Paul Skrbina of the Chicago Tribune. "I felt the adrenaline when I was on the bench, so I'm thinking it's something I'm also going to feel [in Game 4]."
No Cubs hitter has anything approaching a deep history against Urias. But Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Jason Heyward have all homered against him.
"It'll be easier to establish what we want to do against him, just because we've all had at-bats against him," Bryant said, per MLB.com's Phil Rogers. "But it's a different time of the year. I'm sure he'll be throwing a little harder because it's the postseason."
There's also the controversy over Urias' pickoff move, which The Beat's Justin Russo captured:
That's a possible source of grumbling if you're searching for one. Cubs manager Joe Maddon called it "balking 101," per MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch. So keep an eye on that.
Sideshows notwithstanding, however, Urias has a path to October glory if he can outshine veteran Chicago right-hander John Lackey, who was finishing up high school in Abilene, Texas, when Urias was born. He can pen a legend and scribble his name all over it.
"Under normal circumstances," USA Today's Jorge L. Ortiz opined, "the Dodgers brass might have preferred to go with a more experienced starter." But these aren't normal circumstances. Injuries have beset L.A.'s starting corps. So here's Urias, healthy and ready.
The Dodgers are in the driver's seat. And a kid who's barely tasted his 20s has his foot poised over the accelerator.