The weather hasn't been friendly to Ubaldo Jimenez in the season's first month. And while the Orioles right-hander didn't want to use Monday night's blustery chill as an excuse for struggling to find the strike zone in the team's 6-3 comeback win over the Tampa Bay Rays, Jimenez said his inability to grip his sinker definitely played a role.
For Jimenez, his success usually feeds off his ability to command his sinker, and without it Monday, he headed for his shortest start of the season, a 3 1/3-inning outing that had manager Buck Showalter motioning for the bullpen before the game got out of hand.
"He was trying to maneuver the ball around the strike zone and he just wasn't able to do it," Showalter said. "He never got comfortable. It's tough, he's got 78-80 pitches in 3 1/3. … I didn't get a feeling like it was going to be corrected and we're playing a baseball game we're trying to win."
Five days removed from delivering one of the best Orioles starts of this young season, Jimenez served up a reminder of his dizzying inconsistency. He bore little resemblance to the pitcher who went 7 2/3 scoreless innings in Wednesday night's interleague win over Cincinnati, a game in which he stayed in the strike zone, inducing groundouts while holding an aggressive Reds batting order to two hits.
That was a stark contrast from Jimenez's outing Monday, his shortest since July 8, when he went just 1 1/3 innings against the Los Angeles Angels, his final start before he lost his rotation spot last season.
From Jimenez's first pitch Monday night, his sinker kept dipping low out of the strike zone and his breaking ball pitches were low as well, sending the pitcher into a frustrating spiral searching for his command.
Tampa Bay was content with taking walks, especially in a fourth inning that was Jimenez's last. He threw just nine of 29 strikes in the frame, walking four in the inning – including three on just five pitches – and loading the bases twice before he was removed in favor of long-relief left-hander Vidal Nuno.
"Yeah, it is tough," Jimenez said. "What I was trying to put in my mind was that I had to throw the fastball up in the zone, and that's something you don't want to do. You see that's what happened with the leadoff guy. I fell behind in the count and I was trying to throw a little bit higher in the zone and he hit a homer. That's what I was thinking. You have to find a way to have a good release point and make the ball sink, but you don't want it to be too high."
Before Shane Peterson laced a two-run double down the right-field line for a two-run lead, the Rays loaded the bases by swinging at just two of Jimenez's first 22 pitches in the fourth inning. Leading up to Peterson's hit, the Rays took 15 straight pitches, and just four of those pitches were called strikes.
On the night, the Rays swung at just 23 of Jimenez's 79 pitches – 29.1 percent – and recorded just two swings and misses.
That came from a Tampa Bay team that entered the night with an American League-high 204 strikeouts in 20 games, averaging 10.2 a game.
Jimenez fell behind to Brad Miller and Steven Souza Jr. 3-1 before walking them on five pitches. He then fell behind Logan Morrison 3-0 before striking him out on three called strikes. He fell behind Tim Beckham 3-0 before walking him on five pitches.
Peterson then sat on a 1-0 fastball that he pulled down the right-field line to break a 1-1 tie. The ball was ruled fair – a call that was unsuccessfully challenged by the Orioles – even though a ball mark on the damp warning track dirt was shown just wide of the right-field foul line.
Unlucky or not, Jimenez didn't do himself any favors. Just 44.8 percent of his pitches Monday – 35 of his 78 pitches – were strikes, and he struggled to locate his sinker, fastball and breaking ball equally. It marked the first time Jimenez threw more balls than strikes since June 8, 2014, when he recorded strikes on just 30 of 63 pitches in a 2 1/3-inning outing against the Oakland Athletics.
"I didn't have a good grip tonight," Jimenez said. "I wasn't able to throw any breaking balls for strikes. I think I only threw a couple good splits, but besides that I couldn't get a grip on the sinker or the breaking balls."
Tampa Bay had just three hits against Jimenez, but the Rays didn't need to draw contact to create scoring opportunities after Jimenez walked five batters on the night.
Jimenez's nightmare fourth inning came after he recovered nicely from allowing a leadoff homer to Corey Dickerson just five pitches into the game. From there he retired nine of the next 11 hitters before going into the fourth, including an escape act in the second, when he stranded two on with one out.
Last week in Cincinnati, he was a beneficiary of his opponent's unfamiliarity. He had made just one previous start against a Reds team he had faced just once over the previous six seasons.
That start came in mid-70s temperatures, and Monday's game was the second time that Jimenez said cold weather hurt his ability to grip a pitch. After his season debut on April 7, Jimenez said chilly temps gave him problems gripping his splitter.
"It could be," Showalter said when asked if weather was an issue for Jimenez on Monday. "He was struggling with his command. We walked seven guys tonight. You don't win many games walking seven. But it was disappointing. Hoping he would kind of build on his last outing, but it was tough conditions for everybody."