After watching Ubaldo Jimenez for the past four years and never quite knowing what to expect from him on a start-to-start basis, Orioles manager Buck Showalter was clear in his assessment of the right-hander's sparkling performance in a 2-0 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday night at Rogers Centre.
"I think that's the best game I've seen him pitch," Showalter said.
The Orioles were among those awed by Jimenez, who tossed eight scoreless innings and held the Blue Jays to just two hits in arguably the team's most dominant starting pitching performance of the season's first half.
Jimenez was coming off his worst start of the year, battered for a season-high nine runs in a 2 1/3-inning shellacking at the Tampa Bay Rays. His fastball lost a tick in velocity, Showalter said, which extended the concern.
But Jimenez flipped the script Thursday, leading the Orioles to a rare low-scoring victory and a road series win in Toronto.
After the game, Jimenez said the quality of his stuff Thursday compared to the night he threw a no-hitter for the Colorado Rockies in 2010. Comparatively, it was better. His game score Thursday (90) was the best of his career, even better than his no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves on April 17, 2010, which drew an 88 game score.
"Yeah, it felt pretty good," Jimenez said. "I could throw any pitch in any count. Everything was moving. The split was crazy. The slider was good. Fastball was moving in and out. It is one of those days like when I threw the no-hitter in Colorado, I had the same feeling."
The Orioles, who arrived in Canada only able to win games by outslugging their opponents, won twice in Toronto when scoring three runs or fewer, something they hadn't accomplished in 22 consecutive games before the series.
While the Orioles (39-39) are still teetering, they have begun to reverse their struggles on the road, winning back-to-back road series for the first time since their first trip of the season, when they took three of four at Rogers Centre and two of three at the Cincinnati Reds in mid-April.
After tying a modern-day record by allowing at least five runs in 20 straight games, the Orioles held the Blue Jays (37-41) to five total runs over the three-game series.
The Orioles return to Camden Yards having won four of six on their two-city road trip to face the Rays and Blue Jays, improving their record against American League East competition to 25-18.
Still, Thursday's game marked just the third time in the past 19 games that an Orioles starter logged at least six innings. Ironically enough, it is Jimenez – after being bumped from the rotation last month before returning three starts ago – who has two of those three starts.
How did Jimenez do it?
Jimenez matched the deepest start by an Orioles pitcher this season – Wade Miley also went eight innings on April 20 in Cincinnati – and allowed just three base runners.
He opened the game retiring 13 of the first 14 batters he faced, the only base runner coming on No. 9 hitter Ryan Goins' two-out double in the third. After issuing a one-out walk to Troy Tulowitzki in the fifth, Jimenez retired 11 of the final 12 batters he faced. Kevin Pillar's double off the right-field fence with two outs in the eighth was the only base runner in that stretch.
While the movement Jimenez gets on his pitches has frequently been a curse because it leads to command problems, he was in control of every pitch he threw Thursday night.
Jimenez had his two-seam sinking fastball, slider and splitter working down in the zone – while still working higher in the zone to left-handed hitters -- leading to 10 groundouts. Jimenez also had a season-high eight strikeouts, and seemed to miss more bats later in the game. Five of Jimenez's last 10 outs came by strikeout.
"He's done it before," Showalter said. "A long time ago, a lot people considered him the best pitcher in baseball. He had a good rhythm and was repeating his delivery tonight and hitting his landing foot and his arm in the right spot. He was able to throw anything he wanted. … He had that fastball that started in on guys and ran over and then to right-handers started off the plate and ran it back over the corner."
After entering the night averaging 4.7 walks per nine innings, Jimenez walked just one of the 27 batters he faced. Seventy-two percent of his 98 pitches were strikes.
"It is a lot different when you have tremendous movement on all [your pitches]," catcher Caleb Joseph said. "It's not like he just has movement on the split or the slider. He's got a sinker that can run half a plate when executed. All the pitches have so much movement that sometimes it is a little tougher to get in the zone.
"For the most part I think a lot of [his struggles] have been the movement has been out of the zone, or missing the spot. So when that happens, you either walk guys or give up balls centered in the plate. When he's been able to locate and find out where the movement is starting and able to pinpoint that, you usually get good results."
Despite his struggles, Jimenez has three of the Orioles' four deepest starts this season, going 7 2/3 innings against both the Washington Nationals and Reds. His start Thursday lowered his season ERA from 7.26 to 6.48.
Joseph comes through
Joseph, who was inserted into the starting lineup shortly before first pitch Thursday when starter Welington Castillo was scratched with a left knee sprain, provided a two-hit game.
Joseph drove in the Orioles' second run with a two-out single in the sixth off Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ. He added a two-out double in the second inning.
But Joseph said he got more joy out of being on the receiving end of Jimenez's gem, comparing it to the groove felt when playing a video game to perfection.
"It's like when you are playing a video game and you have the start and stop button perfectly and you have accuracy and power hitting at the same time," Joseph said. "It was like that for however many pitches he threw. Perfect touch on the power and location. You are putting that little ball on the place where you want. You hit the buttons and it just shows up there. It was frickin' amazing.
"It was really fun. Those are the type of games as a catcher you really take in. What you dream about when you are young – setting up and just hitting the glove. It makes you giddy out there when you have that type of performance. I'm so happy for him, really."
Joseph said he received word he was going to start about 20 minutes before the game's first pitch after Castillo was injured stumbling on a step while going out to the bullpen to warm up Jimenez.
"It was 6:47 [p.m.]," Joseph said. "I was just about to take my third bite of a nice pepperoni pizza that Brian from Brian's bullpen kitchen made for me in the clubhouse. And [special assignment pitching instructor] Ramon [Martinez] said, 'Hey, you might want to get ready. Think Castillo may have hurt himself.' So of course, you finish that bite that you are about to devour and then spring to your locker and then lube up the old jockstrap and get ready to go."
The Orioles scored their first run on Jonathan Schoop's third-inning sacrifice fly, which followed Ruben Tejada's leadoff single and Joey Rickard's double to put runners at second and third.
Brach finishes out ninth
Showalter kept Jimenez in to pitch the eighth inning, but said after the game that he would've brought in right-hander Mychal Givens to face Jose Bautista had Jimenez not retired Goins to get out of the eighth.
With Jimenez at 98 pitches, he turned to interim closer Brad Brach to pitch the ninth.
"Of course you want to go out there for the ninth, but it's about the team," Jimenez said. "We need to secure that W. Brad is a guy that had to be there in the ninth. I'm happy to be there for the team for eight innings."
Brach allowed a one-out single to Russell Martin, but then retired the next two hitters he faced to end the game, striking out Josh Donaldson on four pitches and inducing a game-inning flyout off the bat of Justin Smoak for his 15th save.
"I thought the tougher decision was the eighth inning, especially when you have a guy who's doing a job like Brad, an All-Star pitcher," Showalter said. "[Jimenez] did a good job for us. He emptied the tank for us in the eighth inning. He was facing his last hitter in the eighth inning."