HOUSTON — Orioles manager Buck Showalter was quick to point out the value of Ubaldo Jimenez's relief outing in the team's 8-4 loss to the Houston Astros on Sunday afternoon at Minute Maid Park, but he didn't go much further than that in proclaiming any sudden confidence in Jimenez.
Making his first relief appearance since being demoted to the bullpen, Jimenez provided six innings – allowing just two unlucky runs during his first inning of work in the third inning that came after an inning-ending out was overturned by review – and saved the bullpen from another potential roster move going into Monday's series opener against the American League East-rival New York Yankees.
"It's always good to finally have a good one and finally do something for the team, especially when I was able to help the bullpen, so it feels good," Jimenez said after the game.
For Jimenez, whose 7.17 ERA entering the game was the second highest in the majors among pitchers with 40 or more innings, it was definitely a step forward.
"I was making better pitches," Jimenez said. "[Catcher Welington] Castillo was calling a great game and I was executing pitches. I maintained the ball in the dirt. They kept hitting ground balls and soft fly balls. And then we pitched behind in the count, we threw a lot of breaking balls. So we pitched."
After the game, however, when asked whether Jimenez's performance could allow him to regain his spot in the rotation, Showalter definitely fell short of saying that.
"It's a good outing for him and hopefully it's a sign that he can get back on track down the road," Showalter said.
Jimenez relieved right-hander Alec Asher, who was selected to take Jimenez's spot in the rotation, but Asher lasted just two innings after giving up six runs inning in the second. He left the game after just 54 pitches.
That's an indication that Asher might be available back in the bullpen later this week, but who takes the Orioles' next open start when the fifth spot comes back Friday against the Boston Red Sox isn't clear.
It's more complicated than just deciding whether Asher or Jimenez is more deserving. The Orioles had some reluctance in moving Asher into a starting role because he had pitched so well in relief – giving the team both length and late-inning help – and his confidence grew in that role. Now, can it be that easy to send Asher back to the bullpen after just one start?
There's also question about Jimenez's long-term future in the 'pen. He doesn't have much experience there and as was seen Sunday, when the Orioles got him up in the second inning, he's so used to starting that he needs additional time to warm up. It took awhile for Jimenez to get loose even once he entered the game, but once he did, he was effective.
"It's pretty tough, especially for me that I haven't been a lot in the bullpen," Jimenez said. "My whole career has been starting, even in the minor leagues. But it is what it is. You have to find a way to get it going. For me, it's always the first inning. I think once I get loose, I can find all my breaking balls and the movement on my fastball, but the first inning is always the toughest one."
Keep in mind that right-hander Edwin Jackson's opt-out date is Thursday. The veteran right-hander, who has a 4.30 ERA at Triple-A Norfolk, fits the profile of a long man much better than Jimenez because he has a track record of providing length in relief and wouldn't need as much rest between starts as Jimenez would.
But the Orioles' recent move to allow outfielder Michael Bourn out of his contract when his opt out came suggests the club is more willing to let those veterans with minor league deals walk.
The Orioles could potentially keep both Jimenez and Jackson in long relief, but it the bullpen's ability to move optionable pieces back and forth would take a hit because neither veteran can be sent down to the minors.