CINCINNATI — What made Ubaldo Jimenez's outing Wednesday night against the Cincinnati Reds more impressive than just his pitching line was that, during most of it, he was essentially relying on one pitch.
Despite that, the display showed how effective Jimenez can be when he is commanding his two-seam sinking fastball down in the zone, especially against an aggressive batting order.
Jimenez delivered his best performance of this young season in the Orioles' 2-0 victory over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on Wednesday night, recording 7 2/3 shutout innings and allowing just two hits.
"I thought his tempo, a lot of ground balls, a lot of pretty good plays made behind him because guys were engaged in the game," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He knows all this. It's just being able to execute it. That's about as good as you'll see him stay together in his delivery for an extended period of time."
Jimenez retired 18 of the final 21 hitters he faced and didn't allow a hit after catcher Tucker Barnhart's two-out single in the second inning.
"There's no doubt about it, I needed a start like this," Jimenez said. "I needed to be there for my team and I'm glad I was able to do that tonight."
Jimenez lasted just 4 1/3 innings in both of his first two starts of the season, allowing five runs both times, including a game in which he was staked to an early 9-0 lead in his last start last Wednesday in Boston. He entered the night with a 10.38 ERA.
But on Wednesday, Jimenez recorded 12 ground-ball outs, keeping the ball on the ground by keeping his sinker down in the strike zone.
Jimenez (1-0) didn't necessarily throw more strikes, especially early. He threw just six of 17 first-pitch strikes during his first four innings. He didn't have command of his slider early, so he had to rely on his sinker until he was able to find his slider and changeup in the fifth inning. Then he retired 11 of his final 13 batters, with both baserunners coming on walks.
"Especially after the fifth inning, I was able to get my breaking balls going," Jimenez said. "That was something I didn't have in the first four innings. I just had my sinker, but after I got into a good rhythm I was able to throw everything for strikes."
Jimenez's inability to throw his breaking ball for strikes early made him fall behind in counts, but his ability to keep his sinker down allowed him to compensate, and he was able to draw contact early and let his defense work behind him.
"One of the toughest pitches to execute, but it's a separator, is the 2-0 fastball, [throwing a] quality-located fastball at 2-0 when you get behind that you can get back in the count," Showalter said. "When he did get behind, he made a pitch to get back in the count. … Instead of that 2-0 pitch being center-cut, it was a place where he could still get an out if the guy was aggressive."
The ground ball was indeed Jimenez's best friend. He didn't miss many bats, recording just nine swings-and-misses, including just two on fastballs.
But utilizing his sinker allowed Jimenez to get out of a bases-loaded jam in a 17-pitch second inning, when he induced a ground-ball out from pitcher Amir Garrett. He also stranded a runner on second in the fourth – Scott Schebler drew a two-out walk and stole second base – when he got a ground ball to shortstop off the bat of Zack Cozart.
"I was able to control the ball and make it sink in the lower half instead of it being flat like in my first two starts," Jimenez said. "That was it. I was able to get on top of that ball and get ground balls."
Jimenez has had success against the Reds, a team he faced regularly during his first six seasons in the National League with the Colorado Rockies, but going into Wednesday's game, he had faced the Reds just once since 2010.
He was a much different pitcher then, showcasing a high-90s fastball, as opposed to now, when he relies on location to get outs.
Still, Jimenez improved his career record in seven starts against the Reds to 4-0 with a 2.51 ERA. His is also 3-0 with a 0.80 ERA in four starts at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park.
Jimenez exited the game with two outs in the eighth to cheers from Orioles fans who traveled to Cincinnati. He left a runner on third, but left-hander Donnie Hart stranded that runner by getting Joey Votto to fly out in foul ground to preserve Jimenez's scoreless outing, his first of seven or more innings since Aug. 8, 2015.
"He filled up the bottom of the zone tonight," Showalter said. "Had enough secondary pitches working for him."