Add the image of much-maligned Orioles right-hander Ubaldo Jiménez walking off the mound in the seventh inning of the Orioles' 8-5 interleague victory over the St. Louis Cardinals — wiping his brow as he let the most unlikeliest of standing ovations sink in on a sweltering Sunday afternoon at Camden Yards — to the many reasons why baseball can be so unpredictable.
Demoted to the bullpen a month ago — and inserted back into the starting rotation this weekend in a move more based in optimism than anything statistically defensible — Jiménez gave the Orioles their best start since the first days of June, holding the Cardinals to two runs over seven innings to give his team its first back-to-back wins since June 7-8 against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"Felt pretty good," Jiménez said. "I mean, like I said before, it doesn't matter how things are going for me. I just want to fight. Doesn't matter where I am, I'm going to try to do the best I can. It felt good to be able to be there for the team today."
The Orioles' starting rotation entered Sunday's series finale with a June ERA of 8.26, the worst in the major leagues. And Jiménez's start marked the first time an Orioles starter pitched seven full innings since Wade Miley allowed one run in seven innings June 1 against the Boston Red Sox, creating an almost catastrophic gap of short starts that quickly imperiled the Orioles' season this month.
"He may not admit it, but there's kind of a mental edge there," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "[Thinking] 'Hey, I've taken a step back and the club needs me to deliver something,' I think [is] part of it. Quite frankly, he knew there wasn't someone that could pitch in the third or fourth inning. There is. We would do that. But for us to have a chance to win today, he was going to have to pitch six or seven innings."
Still, expecting Jiménez to reverse the rotation's troubling trend — he had a 7.71 ERA in eight starts before being bumped to the bullpen — and outpitch Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn, who entered the day fourth in the National League in ERA, was a reach, especially given the conditions. The hot, humid temperatures favored the hitters, and any ball driven in the air had a chance for the stands.
"He was good," Showalter said. "I can't tell you how few pitchers in baseball would have pitched seven innings in that weather. That was pretty remarkable. Last time he had a short stint in the bullpen, he came back and pitched real well. We're hoping that happens again. We're going to need things like that again. Really shortened the outs we had to get out of the bullpen, which has been a struggle for us."
Jiménez realized early that his pitches were moving. His slider, splitter and sinker all carried extra bite, but he spent his first few innings trying to harness his movement, and over the first three innings, he had six three-ball counts. But Jiménez found a solution with his sinker, which he threw 60 times in his 106-pitch outing, inducing four of his five swing-and-misses on the day, but more importantly keeping it low in the strike zone to induce eight groundouts.
"It was a really tough day to pitch," Jiménez said. "It was so hot out there and everything was carrying. If you left something hanging, it was going to be out of the park. I think that's why I had such a pretty good game today. The sinker was down in the zone and [catcher Welington] Castillo was calling a great game."
Jiménez has unfamiliarity on his side. Only three Cardinals players had ever faced Jiménez, who has spent most of the past seven seasons pitching in the American League, and those who did were a combined 3-for-20 against him.
The only damage done against Jiménez was by right fielder Stephen Piscotty, who hit a pair of solo homers. The only other two hits off Jiménez were singles, and after Aledmys Díaz's two-out single in the fourth, Jimenez didn't allow another hit and faced the minimum number of hitters over his final 31/3 innings.
His grittiest inning might have been the third. After the Orioles took a 2-1 lead on Trey Mancini's solo homer in the bottom of the second, he recorded a shutdown inning, holding off a two-out rally. Matt Carpenter started the threat with a walk and Dexter Fowler singled to the left side against the defensive shift, but Jimenez bore down and got an inning-ending groundout from Tommy Pham, who hit a 3-0 pitch to second baseman Jonathan Schoop for a 4-3 putout.
That was all the help Jiménez would need. After Piscotty's home run in the fourth, Jimenez allowed just three base runners, and none of the three went beyond first base.
And after the seventh, he could take a moment to savor the outing while walking off the mound. Jiménez has heard his share of boos at Camden Yards, and his recent struggles had fans calling for his release, but he above all knows the realities of success and failure because he's spent much time on both sides.
"It felt great," Jiménez said of the ovation. "It felt good, especially today is Father's Day, so it was a good day. I understand that it's part of the game. When things are not going the way you want them to go, of course you're not going to have a lot of people rooting for you. But it's a part of the game."