It was on the crude, unkempt fields in Cartagena, Colombia, where Gio Urshela first took ground balls. The baseballs often were tattered. The bounces were unpredictable.
But that environment prepared Urshela for the manicured fields of professional baseball. Almost nightly, the 27-year-old third baseman makes the tough plays look easy. And maybe they are, given the conditions with which he grew up.
“I’ve been working on it since I was a kid,” Urshela said Tuesday. “I used to take ground balls on really bad fields in Colombia, so the ball is coming, bouncing, and I’d still catch it.”
His fielding was what created chances for a player considered not just glove-first but glove-only at the start of his career.
But Urshela’s once quiet bat has gotten lively, earning him regular playing time on a walking-wounded Yankees team that so desperately needed his contributions. Now he could be on his way to the All-Star Game in Cleveland on July 9.
“I mean, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting that,” Urshela said with a smile as he basked in his first extended opportunity since 2015, his rookie season in Cleveland.
As part of MLB’s new All-Star selection process, Urshela was voted by the fans during “The Primary” as one of three finalists to start at third base, along with Alex Bregman and Hunter Dozier. Bregman was voted the starter after “The Starters Election” concluded Thursday.
Pitchers and reserves are chosen by managers, so Urshela can make the AL roster if Alex Cora deems him worthy. Rosters will be announced Sunday.
Through 64 games after his promotion April 6, Urshela owns a .303/.354/.458 slash line with six home runs and 35 RBIs. His 201 at-bats are more than the 199 he totaled in 2017 and 2018 with the Indians and Blue Jays, respectively. During his first three seasons (466 at-bats), Urshela limped to a line of .225/.274/.315 with eight home runs and 39 RBIs.
“I didn’t have that confidence, maybe, that I have now,” he said. “So I think that’s the biggest key, trusting myself to know what kind of hitter I am.”
The Yankees acquired Urshela from the Blue Jays last August for cash considerations, a move that seemed inconsequential with Miguel Andujar scorching his way through his rookie season.
But with Andujar sidelined after only three games with a torn right labrum, and out for the season after a nine-game comeback attempt in May, Urshela took advantage. He didn’t just produce. He impressed.
“I don’t think anybody could have envisioned the kind of opportunity he’s gotten here, but he really just took that opportunity and ran with it,” Brett Gardner said. “He’s been unbelievable.”
“He’s a gifted defender,” manager Aaron Boone said. “The degree of difficulty of some of his plays that he makes look pretty easy. He is impressive. And then offensively, man, it’s just been good at-bats . . . From the start of spring, it’s been good at-bats and it hasn’t stopped.”
When Didi Gregorius returned from Tommy John surgery June 7, Urshela’s role evolved. Gregorius reclaimed shortstop and Gleyber Torres moved from short to second. DJ LeMahieu, who was primarily at second, now has taken starts at third away from Urshela, but it’s not because Urshela has done anything wrong.
“He’s just been a really good all-around player for us,” Boone said, acknowledging that he will get “more days off with everyone being back.”
Once just a middling prospect whose bat failed to match his glove, Urshela may have become a part of the Yankees’ future, as he can’t be a free agent until 2024.
He heard the chatter about his lagging bat and revived his career with the help of Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre hitting coach Phil Plantier, whom Urshela credited for his turnaround.
“That’s maybe the reason that I’m the hitter I am right now,” he said. “I always want to prove that people are wrong, that if you work, you can get better.”
Comparing Urshela’s numbers from 2015-18 with this season:
Category 2015-18 2019
At-bats 466 201
Batting .225 .303
Hits 105 61
HRs 8 6
RBIs 39 35
OBP .274 .354