ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — Ubaldo Jimenez's constant battles with his mechanics date to the early days of his professional career. It's easy to dissect a delivery with so many pieces to it. And there's no one more frustrated by the frequent adjustments he must make than the Orioles right-hander himself.
Jimenez seems to have found his step now, emerging from a stint buried in the back of the Orioles bullpen to put together his best stretch of this roller-coaster season. His resurgence is occurring at the right time, with less than four weeks remaining in the regular season and the Orioles pushing for their third postseason berth in five years.
"It's been tough," Jimenez said. "It's not only now. It's been like that forever. Even when I was in the minors, I had people telling me I wasn't going to make it or I wasn't going to last a long time because of my arm. They said I was going to break down and things like that, so it's been tough. But at the same time, that's what's made me successful. The things that I have — the kind of movement, the breaking ball, the delivery — when it's right, it's one of the best."
The Orioles will need Jimenez's best down the stretch. Since returning to the team's starting rotation to fill in for right-hander Chris Tillman, who went on the disabled list late last month, Jimenez has a 2.91 ERA in three starts, delivering the club's first complete game since 2014 in his most recent outing, Monday at the Tampa Bay Rays. In the past, mechanical issues have led to control problems. But over his past three starts, Jimenez has found the zone more frequently, compiling 13 strikeouts and just three walks over 21 2/3 innings. During that stretch, Jimenez has held opposing batters to a .160 batting average.
Monday's 7-3 win offered a glimpse of how dominant Jimenez can be when he's at his best. In the final eight innings, he didn't allow a hit and let just one man reach base. He was able to efficiently utilize all four of his pitches — his sinker, splitter, slider and curveball — while missing bats along the way, forcing a season-high 17 swings and misses.
"What he has — and it's why he's been effective during certain times in his career — is because he has an innate ability to manipulate the ball," Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace said. "You just saw that two-seamer [Monday]. He nailed it all day long. And all of a sudden, he came up with the split and the breaking ball and his hand has been blessed with what we call a hand that can manipulate the baseball. Now, along with that, that's part of his deception, too.
"You don't want to do too much because you're going to take away from what his strength is. But because he's struggled with his command, that's the battle you always have. He's going to have to battle."
As the Orioles enter their most critical series so far this season in a gauntlet of a stretch run through September — three games in Detroit this weekend against a Tigers team that trails them by one game for the second American League wild card — Jimenez will be called upon Saturday to continue this successful run against a team he hasn't fared well against. He is 5-11 with a 5.68 ERA in 20 career starts against the Tigers.
But Jimenez said he feels as confident with his mechanics now as he did six years ago, when he was one of the game's best pitchers. In 2010, Jimenez enjoyed his best major league season, going 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA for the Colorado Rockies, finishing third in the National League Cy Young Award voting. He hasn't had that kind of consistent success since, but Jimenez said his time in the bullpen and looking back at 2010 helped correct the missteps in his delivery.
"The [way] everything is going with my mechanics is making me get in a good rhythm," Jimenez said. "And then watching videos, comparing videos from now to 2010, it is like my mechanics are really close to where they were six years ago. My hands are breaking down and that is allowing me to deliver the pitch however I want."
Jimenez was demoted to the bullpen for the second time this season after his ERA ballooned to 7.38 on July 8. He then pitched just once over a 29-day span, but he used that time in the 'pen to work with Wallace, bullpen coach Dom Chiti and special assignment pitching instructor Ramon Martinez. Jimenez said the main adjustment he has made has been when breaking his hands from his glove. Instead of extending his arm back, he's lowering it, which he said has allowed him to get behind the ball and gain better command.
"That's the main thing," Jimenez said. "It's something I didn't know I wasn't doing. They just started showing me videos of 2010, 2011, 2012 and then this year. Things were way different to how I was pitching three months ago. Once we started working on that thing, everything started getting better."
Wallace said the key was getting Jimenez comfortable with his delivery again, and while his adjustment doesn't sound like a huge one, it has been a trigger for better command.
"He has one of those deliveries that has a lot of moving parts," Wallace said. "Sometimes it takes a while to get everything in track. He's been through it before. He's obviously an experienced veteran and he knows what it feels like. To his credit, he's done it. He's taken a little from here and a little from there, getting his hands in a comfortable place, not in his ball release but when he disengages from his glove, where and when and how, to get his arm in position. That's a constant battle because of the way he delivers the ball."
What has emerged is a much more confident Jimenez, who can again build off his No.1 pitch — the sinker — to get hitters out, then complement it with his other pitches. The effectiveness of his sinker, which creates a drastic late break when thrown well, has been key. Over his past three starts, opposing hitters are batting just .184 off Jimenez's sinker after hitting a robust .365 off the pitch beforehand this season. He induced seven swings and misses in the 44 times he threw the sinker in his complete-game win Monday.
"The bottom line is you want to get people out, and you want to be really careful about taking away somebody's deception," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "You go trying to smooth everybody out and you might not like the finished product. … So that's the dilemma a lot of times. They get to this level because they have a lot of deception. … Chris Tillman has an unconventional delivery.
"… That's a challenge for coaches. Sometimes the best coaching you do is the coaching you don't do. Sometimes you need to shut up and get out of their way and live with the finished product. It may not always look aesthetically [pleasing] in the first inning or the second inning, but the other team usually tells you how deceptive a guy is."
Over Jimenez's past four starts — his three since filling in for Tillman, who returns from the disabled list Sunday, and a spot start in a makeup game in Minnesota on July 28 — he has posted a 2.70 ERA. However, three of those four starts were against teams Jimenez has had success against. He owns sub-3.00 ERAs against the Twins, Washington Nationals and Rays.
Showalter said this week that he will go with the hot hand while playing matchups upon Tillman's return. Jimenez is pitching well, but Showalter expecting similar results against a Tigers team that has battered him in the past and is surging in September is somewhat of a leap of faith. As for Jimenez, he said his time in the bullpen helped him to find his way through a difficult season.
"As a player, you never want [to get sent to the bullpen]," Jimenez said. "You want to keep fighting through it. But I guess everything happens for a reason. That's what I take from it. And in a positive way, it did, because it allowed me to get where I am right now."