Ubaldo Jimenez takes the mound tonight for the Orioles battling a familiar set of circumstances that has dogged him for most of his career, and has continued even as he has turned his season around in 2016.
He struggles to get his footing in the first inning. And he's not alone. Several Orioles starters are significant examples of an issue all pitchers deal with to some extent. Every situation is different, and every pitcher deals with different things, but it's afflicted Jimenez and his peers more than most this year. Everyone is searching for a way through it, and there's only 10 games remaining to get it fixed this year.
"I think for me especially, I think that's something that I'm probably going to try to start working on, to get all my pitchers going in the bullpen before I come into the game," Jimenez said. "I think that's been the biggest key for me, that I start throwing fastball, fastball for strike to get a feel for it, then by the time I get out of the inning, I'm already losing the game. I need to find a way to get my breaking balls ready right away."
As a team, the Orioles are tied with the Los Angeles Angels for worst in the American League with a 5.84 first-inning ERA, with only the Cincinnati Reds and their young pitching staff worse in all of baseball.
No pitchers have made over 20 starts this season with worse first-inning ERAs than Yovani Gallardo (9.00 in 21 innings over 21 starts) or Jimenez (8.46 in 22 1/3 innings over 23 starts).
For Jimenez, who returned to the rotation last month and has a 3.28 ERA in five starts since, six of the 13 runs he's allowed have come in the first.
Both recently offered their perspective on the issue, which has gone a long way toward defining seasons that even with Jimenez' recent resurgence can only be characterized as disappointing.
"I think that's the toughest inning for a starter, the first one and the fifth," Jimenez said. "It's one of those things you try not to put in your head—you try to do your best out there—but the first three batters right away, it doesn't happen like that. I think it has to do with you warm up in the bullpen, then you have to walk all the way into the dugout, then you get a little bit cold. You have to wait for the anthem, you have to wait for the umpire, and you start you have to find a rhythm again. It's not like you come out of the bullpen then go straight to the mound. I think that's what makes it a little bit tough. You just try to be the best you can out there."
"Sometimes, once that hitter steps in the box, you try to overthrow or, the most important thing, is you try to be too fine, too fine in the first inning for that reason: the first hitter of the game, you don't want to get hurt," Gallardo said. "It's almost the opposite of when you throw the ball over the plate, you have a quick inning and start being aggressive. Sometimes, it takes a couple hitters to realize that. Obviously, it's easier said than done to go out and be aggressive in the zone. If you're out in the bullpen, you're taking your time. Gathering your thoughts between pitches or whatever that might be. Once the game starts, you've got to have your secondary pitches very good. If you don't have it, it's going to take a little longer to get it to where it's at. Sometimes, it's just not there. And that's difficult for a starting pitcher."
Everyone has to approach it differently. Gallardo said even as he realizes it between starts, it's hard for any of that to sink in until you're out there. The solutions to that problem, just as everything else when it comes to pitching, vary by the man in question.
"I guarantee everybody in here wants to go out and have a clean first inning," Gallardo said. "Sometimes, it depends on how you feel that day. It's a matter of, just, what do you have pitches-wise? I've tried many different things, more intensity or throwing a little harder in the bullpen, or long-tossing a little bit more—just different things to try and stay away from that."
Jimenez, too, says it's as much about minimizing damage once you do find yourself in those situations as anything else you can do before it. Kevin Gausman dealt with it at times over his career, too, with a 4.76 career first-inning ERA that has been brought down by this year's 3.76 mark. He recently took to having bullpen coach Dom Chiti stand in the batter's box in his pregame bullpen to simulate having a hitter in there so the sensation wasn't different come first pitch.
Chris Tillman says he's struggled with the first inning his whole career (5.04 first-inning ERA on his career, improved to 4.18 this year), but got a piece of advice that turned it around.
"Someone talked to me and told me to treat the first inning as if I was trying to close the first inning," Tillman said. "Go out there with the best stuff, and regardless of what happens, you're trying to close that inning and put up a zero. But you try not to treat it any differently as a starter. The whole goal of being a starter is to be as consistent as you can and doing the same thing, day in and day out and keeping your team in the game and give them a chance to win. And if you start doing stuff differently, it changes. I try to just make quality pitches. I think that's what it comes down to."
Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this story.