After a third straight slog of a start for pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez resulted in his fifth loss of the season, Orioles manager Buck Showalter had to answer a question everyone in the organization hoped they would avoid this year.
How long will Jimenez's spot in the rotation remain his?
"No, we're not at that point," manager Buck Showalter said in a cavernous hallway beneath Angel Stadium.
Jimenez, even after allowing six runs on eight hits with three walks in the Orioles' 10-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday, is still the team's highest-paid pitcher with $13 million coming his way this season.
The Orioles' premier offseason pitching addition, Yovani Gallardo, is on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis. The two pitchers thought to be their top depth entering the spring, Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson, are already in the rotation.
"What other options you talking about?" Showalter asked. "I'm answering your question."
So every fifth game, for at least the time being, it will be on Jimenez and the Orioles to figure out why there seems to be an inning like the Angels' five-run third sprinkled into almost every one of his starts. How does it keep happening?
"If we knew that, we'd make it stop," Showalter said.
"I don't know," said Jimenez. "I think I was the same. … I mean I just try to keep making good pitches. The thing for me is they're finding a way to put a good swing, or either I walk a guy or whatever happens. It's not going my way right now."
Jimenez began the game locked into the strike zone in a way he hadn't been very often in a disappointing May. He worked around a leadoff single and raised hopes that he'd found whatever kink in his elaborate delivery had hampered his control so often this season.
The walk he issued to first baseman C.J. Cron with one out in the second inning turned into the Angels' first run, and his location slipped toward the end of that inning. In the third, the Angels used Jimenez' desperation to throw strikes against him.
Jimenez' second pitch of the inning, a slider to third baseman Yunel Escobar, was hit off for an easy double off the base of the center field wall. The third pitch he threw to the next batter, left fielder Kole Calhoun, was an RBI single. Jimenez issued a four-pitch walk to center fielder Mike Trout to put two men on, and then he had the at-bat he said was the worst for him.
"I was aggressive in the zone, and they found a way to put good swings on the ball. The one that hurt me the most was Albert Pujols. With two runners on base, I got ahead of him [0-2] and wanted to go inside. That's where I went, and he just put a good swing. There's nothing you can do about it. I watched the video. The ball was inside, and he found a way to hit the ball to the line."
Pujols kept the train moving with an RBI double to score a third Angels run. A fourth scored on a single by second baseman Johnny Giavotella, and a fifth scored on a short, looping double down the right-field line by first-baseman C.J. Cron.
Jimenez said it "looked like a foul ball, but it stayed right on the line."
"Those types of hits, there's nothing you can do," he explained. "I think I made a couple good pitches in that inning. It just didn't go my way."
Showalter said he saw the game the same way.
"I thought the lob shot that they threw out there was unsettling," Showalter said. "Made some good pitches. They hit some balls hard, but some fell in, a lot like for us the first game. That one inning kind of gets away from him."
The consolation for Jimenez, and the Orioles, was that he pitched into the sixth inning and allowed Showalter to keep the bullpen fresh entering Monday's off-day. But at what price? Just as he was in his first season with the Orioles in 2014, Jimenez is the high-profile weak spot of a rotation with playoff sights.
Sunday was his ninth start, and he ended it with a 6.07 ERA and a 1.78 WHIP, with 44 strikeouts and 27 walks in 50 2/3 innings.
In 2014, the year he suffered a July ankle injury, lost his rotation spot for the rest of the season, and was left off the roster in the playoffs, Jimenez's first nine starts ended with him carrying a 4.50 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP with 48 strikeouts and 23 walks in 52 innings.
Showalter said it has been just the one inning that's burned him this season, and "he's capable of better." It was the same Tuesday in a five-run fifth inning, with four of those runs belonging to Jimenez.
Every time the Orioles give Jimenez the ball they seem to believe it might be the day he turns it around. That hope will remain when Jimenez gets the ball next, in Cleveland.
"It's always a test, any time you're not good for the team," Jimenez said. "But the thing about me, I never lose my confidence. I have it in my mind that things are going to change. I'm going to find a way to get back on track, and I have to always take the good thing out of the game. I think I was able to command my fastball today, and be aggressive in the zone. Things have to change one of these days."