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Orioles' Ubaldo Jimenez revisits career trend of being at his best third time through lineup

Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez delivers to Minnesota Twins batter Brian Dozier, who wound up striking out during the first inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Baltimore swept Minnesota with a come-from-behind victory, 4-2.
Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez delivers to Minnesota Twins batter Brian Dozier, who wound up striking out during the first inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Baltimore swept Minnesota with a come-from-behind victory, 4-2. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Vintage Ubaldo Jimenez might mean many things to many people, depending on your baseline memory for the Orioles' highest-paid starting pitcher over the last two-plus seasons.

You might only remember the constant frustration of his first season with the team in 2014, and then the flashes of his best form mixed in with a few bad months in 2015.

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The Jimenez who debuted for the Orioles on Thursday was much more like the one that made him an All-Star before he arrived here. Unlike most pitchers, who falter the third time through the batting order, Jimenez didn't see any drop-off once the Twins lineup turned over a third time.

He was that way for his entire career before coming to the Orioles, and on Thursday, he got better.

In 2015 across the majors, pitchers saw a rise in OPS from .709 to .731 from the first time through to the second, and then a jump to .764 on the third time through. The league average over the last few years is a 30-point jump every time a lineup turns over against a starting pitcher.

Jimenez, on his career, has only a four-point jump in OPS after facing a lineup two times (.720 to .724).  In his two seasons with the Orioles, the jumps have been huge. Jimenez saw his opponent OPS jump from .646 on the second time through to .919 the third in 2014, and it rose from .732 to .779 in those spans last season.

Him reversing that trend, however temporarily, by striking out five once the lineup turned over for a third time rewarded manager Buck Showalter for leaving him in a close game.

"He's always been a guy who's been real trustworthy with that stuff," Showalter said. "I thought he deserved to go out there. He felt good. He had gone further than anybody in the spring. He's probably the most equipped to go there. It was a good, crisp night. His tempo and rhythm were good. I thought he deserved an opportunity to go back out there. He was the key to the game. You can go through a lot of different things in that game, but Ubaldo was the key. He was solid."

Jimenez started shakily in the first inning, as he's wont to do and as might have been expected considering his last spring training start was March 27, with only had a minor league game under his belt since then.

Twins first baseman Joe Mauer homered off him in the first inning, one of three hits Minnesota had early. Mauer's home run would have been worth two runs instead of one if right fielder Danny Santana hadn't been caught stealing while he was at the plate.

In the second inning, he allowed a single and an unearned run on a two-base error by first baseman Chris Davis.

The first time through the batting order he allowed four hits, one strikeout and a home run. The second time through the order was an improvement. He gave up three more singles, including two to lead off the third that were erased by a double play Jimenez started himself. Jimenez also struck out three batters the second time through the order, a sign of things to come.

By striking out four and allowing one hit on the third trip through the order (plus striking out second baseman Brian Dozier in his fourth plate appearance), Jimenez bucked a trend that has troubled him through his Orioles career and has been the difference between his best years and his worst.

He is, after all, a rhythm pitcher who doesn't always find his groove. But when he does, it's hard to get him out of it.

When he's at his best, he has enough pitches at his disposal to get deeper into games than most. When he doesn't have it, he doesn't often get a chance to get through a lineup more than twice.

Showalter has learned to trust him when it comes to leaving him in games when he says he still can go, as Jimenez did after passing 90 pitches entering the seventh inning.

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On this particular night, Jimenez said he was able to succeed on the third time through because the Twins jumped on his fastball so often early in the game.

"I think tonight was a case that the first couple innings I didn't throw all my breaking balls right away," Jimenez said. "We just kept going with the fastball and they came out swinging. After that I was able to throw all of the breaking balls. [Catcher] Caleb [Joseph] called a great game. I didn't shake him more than three or four times. He really knows me a lot. But that was the main thing tonight, we were able to throw all the breaking balls."

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