Resurgent Ubaldo Jimenez Emerging as Secret Weapon in Orioles' October Hunt

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2016

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 21:  Starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez #31 of the Baltimore Orioles throws to a Boston Red Sox batter in the first inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 21, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Unlikely heroes rise in the postseason.

With the Baltimore Orioles fighting for their playoff lives, right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez is getting an early start.

Jimenez twirled 6.2 scoreless frames Thursday in the Orioles' 4-0 win over the Toronto Blue Jays, allowing one hit with three walks and five strikeouts.

The win moved the O's (87-72) into a tie with Toronto for the American League's top wild-card spot and 1.5 games ahead of the Detroit Tigers, the closest WC competition.

The Orioles finish the season with three games in the Bronx against the dangerous New York Yankees. The Jays get three on the road against the division-winning and possibly complacent Boston Red Sox, while the Tigers take on the cellar-dwelling Atlanta Braves.

Baltimore's work isn't finished, in other words. There's a scenario where the club sits at home for most of October.

If the Orioles do flutter into the playoffs, however, Jimenez's resurgence will be an unexpected boon—and a serious secret weapon.

His overall numbers aren't pretty. The 32-year-old owns an 8-12 record and 5.44 ERA through 142.1 innings. He hasn't posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 2013.

Lately, though, Jimenez has resembled the pitcher who once upon a time made the All-Star team and finished in the top five in Cy Young Award balloting with the Colorado Rockies in 2010.

Jimenez hasn't posted a sub-4.00 ERA in three seasons.
Jimenez hasn't posted a sub-4.00 ERA in three seasons.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Since the All-Star break, Jimenez owns a 2.82 ERA, tops among Baltimore starters. 

He threw into the sixth inning or later in each of his last seven starts and mixed in a complete game Sept. 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays.

A formerly good but recently blah hurler on a mini hot streak wouldn't grab headlines on most contenders. The Orioles, though, are so hard up for starting pitching that Jimenez's roll counts as a revelation.

Baltimore starters own the third-worst ERA (4.77) in the AL and are easily the worst among postseason hopefuls in both leagues.

Chris Tillman has been a mixed bag since returning from the disabled list. Kevin Gausman has yielded 17 hits and nine earned runs in his last two decisions, both losses. Dylan Bundy, Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley are all covered with warts.

There isn't a clearor even murkyace in the bunch. 

Ostensible Orioles ace Chris Tillman spent time on the DL and has been uneven since his return.
Ostensible Orioles ace Chris Tillman spent time on the DL and has been uneven since his return.Matthew Hazlett/Getty Images

It's asking a lot to expect Jimenez to become that ace. A promising half and handful of superlative starts don't erase years of mediocrity.

But Jimenez, as Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun noted, has "found the command of his sinker and been able to effectively utilize his breaking ball off that."  

He's harnessing his stuff, even as his velocity remains consistent with the past couple of seasons. And he's concurrently gaining swagger. 

"When things are going good, you feel confidence," Jimenez said, per Encina. "You don't have to get on the mound and wonder what is going to happen. Even before you get on the mound, you know you’re going to be able to compete and you feel good mentally, physically, everything is good."

The O's reportedly tinkered with Jimenez's delivery in mid-August, and the stats suggest it helped, as ESPN.com's Jayson Stark noted:

The Orioles can hit. They rank third in the AL in OPS (.760) and pace baseball with 247 home runs. The bullpen is an asset, fronted by the three-headed hydra of Mychal Givens, Brad Brach and Zach Britton.

But it's tough, if not impossible, to make a deep run without at least a couple of reliable starters. A few months ago, the idea that Jimenez could fill that role would have seemed absurd.

Now, as the autumn leaves turn and the lights get brighter, he's doing a credible impression of an unlikely hero.

Which is exactly what Baltimore needs.

   

All statistics and standings current as of Thursday and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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