BALTIMORE — In the same way that it would be premature for the Orioles to bury Bud Norris after his poor start in the home opener, Ubaldo Jimenez can’t erase the memory of an awful 2014 season with one terrific outing.
But catcher Caleb Joseph said it best in describing the right-hander’s seven shutout innings in which he allowed only one hit while striking out eight and walking one in a 7-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday.
“He was like a video game out there,” Joseph said. “I haven’t caught very many major league games, but that may have been one of the [most fun]. What he’s been through over the last year or so and then working really hard and getting better each and every spring training start, and then when the lights really come on — playing for real — he did such a great job.”
Despite the frustration of a fan base that expected big things from the 31-year-old when he signed a four-year, $50 million contract 14 months ago, it’s easy to see how well liked Jimenez is by teammates and coaches. Working hard to simplify and repeat his delivery this offseason, Jimenez has been praised for his commitment to improve from the time he arrived in Sarasota for spring training two months ago.
Asked what impressed him most about Jimenez this spring prior to Saturday’s game, manager Buck Showalter was direct in saying it was the results and how the veteran had improved a little bit each time he went to the hill. Jimenez pitched on the road — meaning he would face more of the opposition’s regular hitters — in all but one of his seven spring starts, posting a 2.88 ERA in his final 25 Grapefruit League innings and walking just six batters over that span.
That success carried over and then some on Saturday as Jimenez stifled a Blue Jays lineup that had piled up 12 runs and 16 hits just a day earlier. It began with fastball command and impeccable control as Jimenez delivered first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 23 hitters he faced. He also effectively mixed in his split-fingered fastball and curveball while his two-seam fastball induced 11 grounders that were turned into outs by the excellent defense behind him.
Jimenez is gradually learning to trust that defense, adopting pitching coach Dave Wallace’s philosophy of pitching to weak contact and not always needing to rely on the strikeout. Unlike other starters in the current rotation, Jimenez has the ability to consistently miss bats — he still averaged 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings last season — but it can’t come at the expense of control.
Yes, it’s only one start, but it was a glimpse into what the Orioles envisioned when they made a four-year commitment to the 2010 All-Star Game starter for the National League. While a career-worst 5.5 walks per nine innings average and a 4.81 ERA from last year are fresh in observers’ minds, Jimenez has pitched at a high level at various times in his career, which is the upside that executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was attracted to.
For now, Jimenez can only take it one start at a time, one strike at a time while observers will understandably remain skeptical until he proves himself consistently.
“The only thing I’m worried about is being there for the team,” Jimenez said. “If I pitch good, they will forget [last year], but my main goal is be there for the team. I can’t be worried about what everyone is thinking.”
Saturday reinforced that the Orioles were right to give Jimenez a chance to reestablish himself in the rotation. He’ll need to prove he can remain there, but owing a pitcher $39 million over the next three years has a way of making an organization provide as many opportunities as humanly possible to fetch a return.
The Jimenez who’s surfaced over the last month dating back to spring training is one the Orioles would like to see pitching meaningful games in September and beyond. It’s the reason why they brought him to Baltimore in the first place despite his opening act being a dud.
“Nobody’s worked harder than him. You can tell he did it in the offseason, too,” Showalter said. “He came in here with a real purpose. Tonight was a good reminder why he’s been a good quality major league starter for a long time.”