SARASOTA, Fla. — It was only two innings of a spring training exhibition in the first week of March — not exactly Game 7 of the World Series — but Ubaldo Jimenez’s Orioles debut Friday couldn’t have gone much smoother.
And that was a major relief for the 30-year-old veteran.
“Definitely. You always want to make a [good] first impression,” said Jimenez, who threw two perfect innings in a 15-4 win Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies, striking out three. “It means a lot. Obviously, I want to go out there and be there for the team right away.”
Jimenez is the club’s highest-profile signing in a decade. His four-year, $50 million contract is the largest the Orioles have ever doled out to a free-agent pitcher in club history.
So maybe it was a little more than just a ho-hum, run-of-the-mill spring training game. There was even a touch of nerves present for Jimenez.
“I was excited. I’m like, ‘I’m going to be there for the first time wearing the Orioles uniform,’ ” the Dominican Republic native said. “I was very excited, but I was like, ‘I have to get it under control.’ Because usually when you try to do too much, things get out of hand and [you] throw a lot of balls.”
Control wasn’t a problem Friday for the tall, lanky right-hander with the funky delivery. He threw 25 pitches, including 17 for strikes, before exiting as planned.
He threw just one pitch over 90 mph in the outing — at 91 mph — primarily because he didn’t throw any four-seam fastballs. Instead, he focused on two-seam fastballs, split-fingered fastballs and sliders.
“First outing, you don’t know what to expect when guys are getting their feet on the ground for the first time. But I was really impressed with the way he commanded the ball on both sides of the plate,” said bench coach John Russell, who acted as the club’s interim manager for part of Friday. “I thought it went very well for him and I think he did some things that he wanted to get done today.”
The fastball velocity will come, Jimenez said, but he is still playing a little bit of catch-up. He officially signed with the Orioles on Feb. 19, several days after the club’s other pitchers and catchers reported to camp.
“I feel good, but I know I'm not 100 percent like most of the pitchers are right now. They're probably a week ahead of me, but I feel fine,” he said. “I'm getting there. I've been doing some routines that they want me to do in order to get ready for the season, and that's what I'm doing.”
Jimenez said he initially was concerned about how he would fit in with his new team. But the transition has been seamless, he said, thanks to the way he’s been treated in the clubhouse.
“First, when I signed, I was wondering a little bit, but as soon as I got to the ballpark, everything felt good,” said Jimenez, who also has pitched for the Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians over eight major league seasons. “They have a great group of guys. They’re going to make you feel at home right away. It wasn’t hard to get along with everyone because everybody is too nice over here. I felt at home the first day.”
The easy-going Jimenez is the kind of guy who could fit in anywhere, said infielder Cord Phelps, who was briefly with Jimenez in Cleveland.
“He’s a good teammate, really good teammate,” said Phelps, who is battling for a utility infielder’s spot with the Orioles. “He goes about his business and he respects everyone else. He works well with everybody. I think he can only be a positive.”
Jimenez said he immediately felt comfortable Friday throwing to Orioles starting catcher Matt Wieters, who had yet to catch any of Jimenez’s bullpens.
“He's great. He has a great big target out there,” Jimenez said of Wieters. “What else can you ask as a pitcher? He calls good pitches. He's one of the best catchers in the whole major leagues.”
Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace hasn’t had much time with Jimenez yet, but likes what he has seen on and off the field.
Jimenez is “very engaging. As you see it, he can capture you with that smile. But he gets serious when you see him go about his job,” Wallace said. “So he has fit in very well so far, and I think the guys have embraced him.”
Jimenez was signed to help anchor an Orioles starting rotation that was considered the club’s primary weakness. He likely will slot in the second spot in the rotation, behind projected Opening Day starter Chris Tillman. But the hope is that Jimenez can be a top-of-the-rotation starter for years to come.
“We’ll find out,” Wallace said. “But certainly he has the ability.”