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Orioles

Ubaldo Jimenez shows his best stuff as Orioles rout Blue Jays, 7-1

There were times during Ubaldo Jimenez's turbulent 2014 season when he left the mound to boos at Camden Yards. He heard those boos, and Jimenez would acknowledge that he was just as frustrated as those fans, if not more so.

But in Jimenez's regular-season debut Saturday night against the Toronto Blue Jays, the home crowd was treated to unquestionably Jimenez's best performance in orange and black as he led the Orioles to a commanding 7-1 victory before an announced 38,897 at Camden Yards.

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The continued transformation of Jimenez, the often-maligned right-hander who struggled in the first season of his four-year, $50 million deal with the Orioles last season, went largely unnoticed during spring training in Sarasota, Fla. But it was on full display Saturday night.

Jimenez handcuffed a dangerous Blue Jays lineup, throwing seven shutout innings. He allowed just one hit and one walk while striking out eight batters.

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“He was awesome,” catcher Caleb Joseph said. “He was like a video game out there. I haven't caught very many major league games, but that may have been one of the [most fun], just especially [with] what he's been through over the last year or so. And then working really hard and getting better each and every spring training start, and then when the lights really come on, playing for real, he does such a great job. It was fun. It was fun to be a part of.”

Any hangover from the Orioles' 12-5 loss in their home opener Friday quickly was forgotten. The Orioles hit three homers, including Jonathan Schoop's first career grand slam, in the fifth inning off Toronto reliever Todd Redmond.

Jimenez worked ahead of hitters all night, throwing first-pitch strikes 16 of 23 times. He established his fastball early — both his four-seamer and his sinking two-seamer — and was able to mix up as many as six pitches in keeping the Blue Jays off balance.

“The thing that I put in my mind before the game was just, 'Take it like it's spring training,' ” Jimenez said. “I know I was able to pound the strike zone [there], and I was like, ‘Just do the same.' It's the regular season, but treat it just like spring training. Make the hitters swing the bat and limit the walks. That's what I did.”

Jimenez retired 17 of 18 batters before issuing his first walk of the night with two outs left in the sixth. The start marked Jimenez's longest outing since he went eight innings June 30 against the Texas Rangers. Last season, Jimenez went seven or more innings just three times in his 22 starts.

“I know it's the first start of the season, but I've been able to do that in the last five games [in spring training], and every time I get the ball, I'm so confident that I know I can put the ball wherever I want: inside, outside, down, up,” Jimenez said. “It feels great. I feel like every time I go out there, I'm going to have a chance to give the team the opportunity to win.”

Even as Jimenez struggled through most of last season, there were signs, after a demotion to the bullpen, that he was turning the corner. First, he won his last two spot starts of the 2014 season. Then, after a nightmare spring training debut, he began working closely with special assistant and former major league pitcher Ramon Martinez, and went on to post a 2.88 ERA in his last six spring starts.

“He'll be the first to tell you there are a lot of challenges ahead of us, but it's a good start of the season for him,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “He did [struggle] some last year, but it was very obvious early in the spring that he came into this for the right reasons.”

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With the Orioles already leading 3-0, Schoop homered for the second consecutive day, jumping on a 1-1 slider from Redmond and sending it into the left-field stands for his sixth homer against the Blue Jays in 18 career games. It was the Orioles' first grand slam since Aug. 31, when J.J. Hardy went deep against the Minnesota Twins.

“We all know what [Schoop's] capable of, and that ball makes a little different sound off his bat than a lot of people when he squares it up," Showalter said.

The Orioles jumped in front early thanks to first-inning solo homers by Alejandro De Aza and Chris Davis, giving them a 2-0 lead against highly touted Toronto right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who was making his major league starting debut.

The story of the game, though, was Jimenez, who was in control the entire night. Toronto's only hit off Jimenez came in the fourth, a sinking liner to left field off the bat of Jose Reyes that De Aza nearly snagged with a diving catch.

Jimenez remained dominant, retiring 12 of the final 13 batters he faced and not allowing a base runner past first. As Jimenez walked off the mound for the last time Saturday, having struck out Josh Donaldson looking for the final out of the seventh inning, he left to a standing ovation, with his teammates crowding near the top step of the dugout, eager to offer high-fives.

"He gave them a lot to cheer for tonight," Joseph said. "I mean, we're inches away from maybe talking about him not giving up any hits. … Special, fun and exciting, and I'm just so happy for him because he's such a good teammate, such a good person, and he's easy to root for."

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eencina@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EddieInTheYard


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