Orioles pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez entered Thursday's start against the Detroit Tigers coming off his best outing of the season, one in the which he went eight strong innings by relying on his sinking fastball.
But when Jimenez took the mound against the Detroit Tigers, he quickly realized that he didn't have his bread-and-butter pitch. From then on, Jimenez was in a battle with his control but stayed true to his best pitch – for better or worse.
The results were a mixed bag – definitely nothing comparable to his last outing, when he allowed just two runs while scattering nine hits. But Jimenez survived an outing in which he struggled for the feel of his best pitch. His sinker was actually sinking too much, falling out of the zone, which led to some early control problems Jimenez struggled to overcome.
"It was really a tough night out there from the first pitch," Jimenez said. "I was trying to hang in there."
Jimenez was charged with five runs (four earned) on nine hits over five-plus innings Thursday night in the Orioles' 7-5 comeback win over the Tigers, the first game of a seven-game homestand at Camden Yards.
"Definitely you want [the sinker] to be low, but you want it to be in the zone," Jimenez said. "But at the same time, when you get into that situation, you don't want to pull it up that much because you're going to leave it up right where they want it. Once it happens, it makes for a tough night because you want it to be down, but it was way too low."
Jimenez acknowledged he felt crippled early against a Tigers team that was looking to punish an opposing pitcher one night after making dubious history by striking out 20 times against Washington Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer down Interstate-95. Not only was Jimenez's sinker – a pitch he entered Thursday using 43.28 percent of the time this season and used 56.73 percent in his outing Saturday – was too low but he also struggled to get his breaking ball or changeup over.
"[It was] command," manager Buck Showalter said. "I didn't think his breaking ball was as crisp. He had really good late finish on the split last time out. He had a little bit more of a tumbler tonight. Against those guys it doesn't work too well."
In terms of results, the biggest difference between Jimenez's start against the Tigers and his previous one was the fact that he constantly had to battle from behind in the count.
Jimenez walked four — the fourth time this season he has issued that many free passes — and threw just 10 first-pitch strikes to 28 batters.
"That's what makes it really tough," Jimenez said. "When you get into that situation, that's really tough because you're trying to use your pitch that you have, but it's sinking a lot and it's not getting the result you want right away."
He left the game after throwing 105 pitches, 64 for strikes. Jimenez needed just 104 pitches to get through eight innings Saturday.
It could have been much worse. Jimenez escaped the big inning with some key groundouts — he stranded seven Tigers base runners in scoring position. But he couldn't escape a ballooning pitch count.
Jimenez fell into trouble just four batters into the game. He issued back-to-back one-out walks to J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera in the first inning. He walked Martinez on just four pitches, and then Cabrera on six, then allowed an RBI single to designated hitter Victor Martinez.
Remarkably, Jimenez escaped that inning without allowing another run, getting a pair of groundouts off the bats of Nick Castellanos and Justin Upton.
Jimenez put at least two base runners on in each of the first four innings. He loaded the bases in the second inning, walking leadoff man Ian Kinsler with two outs in the inning before getting a 6-4-3 inning-ending double-play ball.
"We used a lot of fastballs today and I just kept missing with it," Jimenez said. "Obviously, I didn't have my breaking ball for the first two innings and then I was able to throw the slider for a strike, the changeup, but the sinker, it was hard. But at the same time, I was able to get out of trouble with the sinker, because when I had the bases loaded and got the double play, it was with the sinker. We just kept going. That's my best pitch. I knew it was down, but I knew if I was able to get it a little bit up they would swing at it and they're going to hit into the ground and they hit it a lot into the ground."
He put runners on second and third with two outs in the third, but escaped that inning unscathed by striking out Tigers outfield prospect Steven Moya to end the inning. Despite allowing two runs in the fourth on Jarrod Saltalamacchia's leadoff homer and Cabrera's groundout, Jimenez stranded two more base runners that inning.
It wasn't entirely Jimenez's fault he couldn't get an out in the sixth. After retiring the Tigers in order in the fifth, the sixth opener with a throwing error on shortstop Manny Machado that pulled Chris Davis off the first base bag. That was followed by a single by Kinsler, which chased Jimenez from the game.
Still, both of those runners scored against reliever Vance Worley that inning, one earned and another unearned, as Jimenez watched from the dugout.
"I almost took him out after the fifth," Showalter said. "He had a good fifth inning and wanted to go back out there. Starting pitchers have a lot of pride like he does. They really want to get into that sixth or seventh inning. … I know he wanted to try to get through the sixth inning for us."