TORONTO — It wasn't that long ago when Ubaldo Jimenez seemed to have lost most of his supporters. His short starts were forcing a patchwork bullpen into overuse, and a trial in the bullpen didn't make things any better because even though he could provide length, he couldn't be used as often as a regular reliever.
The Orioles moved Jimenez back into the rotation with a certain level of blind hope that he would eventually figure it out and offer a glimpse of his best version. They had seen it before in flashes, and with the rest of the rotation crumbling with one short start after another, the Orioles desperately needed Jimenez to give them innings.
Keep in mind, the Orioles were on the verge of dealing Jimenez last season. How close they were to designating him for assignment this year can be debated, but the hole he created in the bullpen made it seem at times that there might have not been any choice eventually. But the prospect of eating the final months of his four-year, $50 million contract might've saved him because it could have done more damage by resigning to the fact that the team's priciest free-agent starting pitcher signing was a front-office failure.
Jimenez's eight scoreless innings on Thursday were a reminder of how dominant he can be when he's on. Obviously, he's more often not, but when he is, the Orioles don't have another starter who can give as deep a start on a regular basis. That's why they signed him in the first place, and Thursday's outing showed that there's still that potential.
Jimenez's game score of 90 was the best of his entire big league career, even better than the no-hitter he threw for the Colorado Rockies in 2010.
"Feels great. Feels great," Jimenez said. "I wish I could get that feeling every single game, [that] I could find the secret to keep that. But it's a wonderful feeling."
The Orioles have been Living La Vida Ubaldo for four years now, and their marriage to the up-and-down right-hander is one they've been committed to. In that same vein, if there's anything that can be learned from Jimenez's outing in Thursday's 2-0 win over the Toronto Blue Jays is that the Orioles can't afford a divorce.
Yes, I'm saying it. They're better off with Jimenez than without him.
At this point in the season, the biggest thing the Orioles need is innings from their rotation. The looming return of closer Zach Britton next week should fully stabilize the Orioles bullpen by restoring all of its late-inning arms so manager Buck Showalter can do what he does best by picking and choosing the right situations to put his relievers in late in close games.
But the key is getting to those late-inning relievers with the lead. Jimenez's start Thursday marked just the third time over the past 19 games that an Orioles starter has logged six or more innings. Jimenez has pitched two of those games: Thursday and a seven-inning outing against the St. Louis Cardinals on June 18.
Jimenez also has tossed three of the Orioles' four longest starts of the season, Thursday's eight-inning start along with two 7 2/3-inning outings. Keep in mind that it was Jimenez who threw the Orioles' last complete game, on Sept. 5 at the Tampa Bay Rays, the same team that beat him around Tropicana Field in his previous start on June 23. Down the stretch last season, Jimenez pitched into the seventh in five of his last six starts, something the Orioles would gladly take now.
The Orioles have won seven of Jimenez's 11 starts this season, giving him the highest team winning percentage in his starts of any Orioles starters. Of course, Jimenez's overall body of work doesn't correlate to the team's success on nights he starts, but it is interesting to note.
While this might be an indictment of the Orioles' playoff chances as they sit at .500 in the last days of June, the only way they are getting to the postseason again in 2017 is if Jimenez gives them more of those deep outings. Make no mistake, it will help if Chris Tillman finds his 16-win form of last season, as it will if Kevin Gausman makes good on some recent building blocks to turn his season around. But Jimenez must play a key role as an innings-eater for the Orioles to have hope.