For the fourth straight turn through the starting rotation, the Orioles sent right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez to the mound Friday night, a decision made more out of necessity —manager Buck Showalter made it clear that there were no better starting options — and less because of any newfound confidence that Jimenez could turn the corner on his season-long struggles.
Jimenez walked off the mound to a chorus of boos, unable to get out of the second inning for the third time in his past eight starts, replaced by right-hander Mike Wright, whose own struggles led to a demotion Friday to Triple-A Norfolk.
Somehow, both had pitched in a first-place team's third-to-last game before the All-Star break, another painful reminder that while the Orioles are playing well overall, they have not only holes in their starting rotation but also a lack of organizational depth that must be addressed.
Another former member of the rotation, right-hander Tyler Wilson, hasn't thrown a pitch since Saturday, when his season-worst three-inning start in Seattle led to his demotion to Triple-A and subsequent shutdown, so that he could receive a midseason rest.
At front and center of the Orioles' rotation woes is Jimenez, who is still owed roughly half of his $13 million salary for this season and an additional $13.5 million next year.
"Not very good," Showalter said. "We were hoping that Ubaldo could get us a little deeper into the game, keep us engaged a little bit more than that, but he wasn't able to."
Over his past eight starts, Jimenez is averaging less than 3 2/3 innings per outing, and has just one quality start over that span. But given his struggles, the Orioles are, surprisingly, 8-9 in games he's pitched. His Fielding Independent Pitching — a statistic that measures ERA, assuming average outcomes on balls in play — is more than two runs lower than his ERA of 7.38.
"There's no doubt about it, this is the toughest thing that I have had to face," Jimenez said. "But like I said before, I'm never going to put my head down. I know I let the team down and I didn't do what I'm supposed to do, helping the team. But it's part of baseball. It's part of baseball. I have to keep going, keep working hard and hopefully find something that's going to get me out of this thing."
This time last year, Jimenez was the Orioles' best starter going into the All-Star break. Now, he's uncertain of where he stands in the rotation.
"We had tried to put him in the bullpen, see if we could work some things out there," Showalter said. "But necessity put him back in there, so we'll attack it after the break. … If you go down to the bullpen, then you've got to be able to do the job those guys are doing. We're a little challenged there, but we have been all year."
Had other options been available, Jimenez might not have started Friday's game, especially after allowing six runs over 4 1/3 innings Sunday in Seattle. But Showalter was forced to use Vance Worley, Dylan Bundy and Odrisamer Despaigne to win a 14-inning game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium.
The Orioles didn't announce Jimenez as their starting pitcher Friday until nine hours before the game's first pitch. And Jimenez — whose place in the Orioles rotation has been awarded on a start-by-start basis since he was jettisoned to the bullpen in mid-June – couldn't take advantage of his latest mulligan.
Seven of the 11 batters Jimenez faced Friday reached base, and the boos grew louder as his second inning wore on. He was charged with five runs on five hits over 1 1/3 innings, adding to a 1/3-inning start June 12 against Toronto and a 1 2/3-inning outing May 28 in Cleveland.
Jimenez entered the night averaging a career-high 5.4 walks per nine innings, and both walks he issued Friday not only ended with the player scoring but seemed to fuel big innings as well.
He walked Kole Calhoun, the second batter of the game, then allowed back-to-back singles to Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, followed by an RBI groundout by C.J. Cron to set up a 2-0 first-inning deficit. In the second inning, Jimenez issued a leadoff walk to No. 7 hitter Johnny Giavotella, then allowed three consecutive one-out singles before he was chased from the game.
Jimenez's sinker, his most dependable pitch, often has failed him. On Friday, his sinkers were too low in the zone, leading to the early-inning walks that hurt him, and his four-seam fastball found too much of the plate. Even his few good pitches were hit — he jammed Trout with a well-placed inside fastball, but Trout slapped it the other way for a bloop single.
"He was keeping a quick pace going, but some balls just kept leaking back middle on him," catcher Matt Wieters said. "It was just kind of a couple innings that he couldn't quite hit his spot to get a big out when we needed it. We had some opportunities to score runs. It's a team loss all the way around. We didn't pitch well, we didn't play defense well and we didn't hit some timely hitting tonight."
After Friday's game, Jimenez said the most frustrating part of his struggles is that he believes he's made progress in his work between starts, only it hasn't translated to results in games. Still, Jimenez has been through these challenges before, and he said that he will do whatever it takes — even going to the bullpen again — to get out of his funk.
"You know what?" Jimenez said. "The only thing I can control is work. Work hard every day and get prepared for whatever I have to do to help the team. I can't control anything else."
Still, if Jimenez was selected to start Friday's game over Wright — as Showalter indicated after the Orioles' extra-inning win over the Dodgers — it's not as if Wright did much better.
Wright, who was recalled from Triple-A before Friday's game to give the Orioles some bullpen length, provided 4 2/3 innings of relief but also allowed four runs. Even though two runs off Wright were unearned because of two fielding errors by Gold Glove-winning shortstop J.J. Hardy, Wright's wildness didn't help his cause. He hit three batters — including Cron twice — and walked two, with two coming around to score.
The Orioles' greatest weakness once again came into the spotlight, and as the nonwaiver trade deadline at the end of this month approaches, the team must not only scour baseball for rotation upgrades but also add a fifth starter. And that's not counting Jimenez's shaky spot in the rotation.
"We're going to do some other things we're thinking about," Showalter said. "We'll keep searching for that. Through it all, we've figured out a way to be better than the rest of the guys in our division so far. But we're not going to look at it with blinders on. We realize it's a challenge."