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Ubaldo Jimenez sent to Orioles bullpen, Alec Asher to start Sunday against Astros

The Orioles are sending scuffling starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez to the bullpen once again with the hope that it will allow him to work through his early-season struggles. While it has succeeded in the past, the club faces challenges to make it work this time around. 

But for now, the team's main objective is to get more innings from its starting rotation, hoping that will ease some of the pressure on a bullpen that hasn't been as much of an anchor as in seasons past.

Right-hander Alec Asher, who went at least six innings in each of his two spots starts this season, will start in Jimenez’s place Sunday in the Orioles’ series finale against a Houston Astros team that entered Friday with the best record in baseball. 

“I think he’s deserving of the opportunity,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Asher, who owns a 2.17 ERA over 29 innings in 11 appearances (two starts) this season. “He’s presented himself well since we got him in the spring and his starts up here and in the bullpen. The challenge is it kind of takes someone who is pitching well out of our ’pen. It’s been a challenge to try to figure out a way to get deeper in some of the games. It won’t really matter who we have in the bullpen if we don’t.” 

Jimenez, whose 7.17 ERA is the second highest among major league pitchers who have compiled at least 40 innings, was available out of the bullpen starting Friday. But the Orioles bullpen, which has been without closer Zach Britton for most of the season, has endured atypical stress. And the addition of Jimenez gives the club three long relievers — Tyler Wilson and Jayson Aquino the others — with Jimenez being the only one without options. 

“We’ve got other people down there, too,” Showalter said. “But it also presents a way for Ubaldo to get back where he needs to be, and we think Ash has got a chance to help us there. Who knows? I told him the day before yesterday. I know he can keep a secret now. He’s deserving and we still hold out hope that Ubaldo gets back to us.” 

Last year, Jimenez was sent to the bullpen in mid-June. He briefly returned to the rotation and had one stretch in which he pitched just once over a 29-day span. Carrying a player on the pitching staff who is used that infrequently seems unfathomable with this year's staff. Still, Jimenez regrouped and posted a 3.12 ERA over his last eight starts of 2016.

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He was also sent to the bullpen in August 2014, and used the time to work out some mechanical problems before finishing strong in September. But with Jimenez in the final year of a four-year, $50 million deal, the Orioles will be challenged to have that kind of patience this time around.

“That’s a part of it,” Showalter said. “He’s got a history of going down there and coming back and pitching well, so we’ll try that. It’s been a challenge for him. It’s not like every time he’s pitched he’s been horrible, but we have to figure out some way to get him going.”

Jimenez's spot in the rotation came under its greatest scrutiny when he blew a five-run lead Monday against the Minnesota Twins, the sixth time in his eight starts that he failed to get beyond the fifth inning. Since throwing 7 2/3 scoreless innings on April 19 in Cincinnati, Jimenez posted an 8.20 ERA in six appearances (five starts).

Asher last pitched Wednesday, but needed just 24 pitches to throw two scoreless innings. He has been working entirely in relief since a spot start on May 2 in Boston, posting a 1.23 ERA in 14 2/3 innings over seven appearances during that span. Showalter said he told Asher on Wednesday that he would start Sunday. 

“We had [already] decided,” Showalter said when asked if Asher pitching just two innings allowed him to remain an option for Sunday. “We could have put him out there for a third inning, but didn’t want to. I thought it was a perfect spot for him to get three days down and start, almost like a normal start.” 

Asher has made two spot starts, both of them quality starts. He held the Toronto Blue Jays to one run on three hits over 6 1/3 innings with five strikeouts and one walk on April 15. On May 2 at Fenway Park, Asher went six innings, allowing three runs on six hits with four strikeouts and one walk.

"I like doing both," Asher said Friday. "Any opportunity to pitch is great. So, whether it's starting or relieving, I'm happy to do it. … Like I've said before, I come and if my name's called, I just go out there and try to get guys out and do my job."

Asher had become a valuable part of the Orioles bullpen, pitching in both multiple-inning situations and late-inning close-game situations. Showalter said Asher’s ability to rebound quickly has been valuable. 

"I think a lot has to do with mechanics and having a clean arm action," Asher said. "It allows me, I think, to bounce back a little better. It's not so much max effort. I really don't try to throw as hard as I can. So there could be many factors into that. Luckily, I don't get all that sore, so I'm able to bounce back and throw pretty much every day."

Showalter said telling Jimenez he was being demoted was a difficult discussion because the 33-year-old had always handled his struggles with grace and professionalism. But all parties knew the team had to make a change going forward.

It was difficult “because of the respect we all have for him as a teammate and a person and a pitcher,” Showalter said. “He knows we’re doing it with a pure heart and doing what we think is best for the club. At some point, him pitching every fifth day might be what’s best for the club.” 

eencina@baltsun.com
twitter.com/EddieInTheYard 

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