Marlins manager Don Mattingly called Jose Ureña his team’s ace earlier this month.
Ureña doesn’t want to label himself in such a way.
But a year after the Marlins lost then-undisputed ace Jose Fernandez in a tragic boating accident, there’s little doubt who has been the Marlins’ most successful starting pitcher.
“You can start this guy and count on him for 30 starts or whatever, and you have a chance to win if you can get enough of him in there,” Mattingly said. “It’s been good to watch him progress.”
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On Wednesday, exactly a year since Fernandez pitched an eight-inning masterpiece in his final start to beat the Washington Nationals, Ureña threw eight solid innings to beat the New York Mets and record his team-leading 14th victory.
Ureña is 14-6 with a 3.55 ERA — best among the Marlins’ starters this season — in 26 starts (159 2/3 innings).
Dontrelle Willis is the only Marlins starter to ever win 20 or more games in a season, finishing with 22 victories in 2005.
The highest win total by any Marlins starter since that season was Fernandez’s 16 wins a year ago. Before that, they had not had a 15-game winner since Josh Johnson in 2009.
Ureña figures to get two more starts before the season ends on Oct. 1.
If he can pick up wins in both, Ureña would match not only Fernandez’s 2016 total, but Al Leiter (1996) and Kevin Brown (1997), as well, for the fifth-most single-season wins in club history.
“I expected better results to come from the hard work I was putting in,” Ureña said. “You work hard in the offseason hoping it will pay off in the big moments in the season, and it has.”
Six months ago, the story was going quite differently for the 26-year-old Dominican right-hander who was simply trying to earn a roster spot in spring training after two seasons bouncing back and forth from the minors.
Ureña opened the 2017 season pitching in a long relief role often when the team had big leads or big deficits.
The Marlins moved him into the rotation on May 7. After losing two of his first three starts, Ureña won five consecutive decisions and 13 of his past 16.
“At times, we haven’t been that patient with a young pitcher and the setbacks they may face as they develop,” Marlins President of Baseball Operations Michael Hill said. “But Jose has always had the mentality you need to have success.”
Ureña has shown improved command of his 95-96 mph fastball and gained confidence in his change-up, slider and curveball.
“He does all the things you like a pitcher to do,” Mets manager Terry Collins said on Wednesday. “I think he knows he’s got a slot right now. I don’t think he’s trying to earn something. Bouncing back from bullpen to the rotation can be tough at times, the difference in preparation. This year, he’s been in that rotation. He’s pitched great.”
The Marlins signed Ureña in 2008, and he played two years in the Dominican Summer League. Ureña then moved to Single-A ball in Jamestown, New York, and faced the challenges many foreign-born players do adjusting to a new culture and environment.
“I knew coming from the Dominican Republic I’d have to deal with the colder weather, a different language, different people, but the same rules when it came to baseball,” Ureña said. “That was enough for me.”
Over his first two seasons, Ureña struggled more than succeeded, going 4-13 with a 5.33 ERA in 21 career starts and a 5.76 ERA overall if you throw in 27 additional relief appearances.
But Ureña said he never lost faith that he would turn things around.
“If I had doubted myself, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” Ureña said. “From the first day of your life, if you doubt yourself you’ve already lost. I always knew I’d go pro and I’d make it.”
The Marlins now view Ureña as a viable starting option looking forward to 2018.
Ureña isn’t worried about being considered an ace or what exact position he would hold in the rotation and plans on entering next spring training giving the same effort he did a year ago when facing an uncertain baseball future.
“I don’t really label myself a No. 1 or No. 2 starter, I just try to be as fully prepared mentally and physically to do my job,” Ureña said. “What you always have to maintain is the confidence you can get outs in any situation.
“The past is in the past. The future is always unknown. You have to approach it with the right attitude and preparation and a winning mindset.”
Friday: Marlins LHP Adam Conley (7-7, 5.20 ERA) vs. Arizona Diamondbacks RHP Zack Greinke (17-6, 2.87), 9:40 p.m., Chase Field.
Saturday: Marlins LHP Dillon Peters (0-2, 5.40) vs. Diamondbacks RHP Taijuan Walker (9-8, 3.45), 8:10 p.m., Chase Field.