Ubaldo Jimenez once again showed Sunday that he is not the man to steady the Orioles' rotation. Of greater concern going forward is that he's not the only one worth worrying about.
On Sunday, in a series that ended with a deflating 9-4 loss and a four-game sweep to the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field, the pitcher who has become a symbol of a staff that's often found lacking ascribed a sentiment he's often had to defend himself with to the entire rotation. It was deserved.
"It's disappointing, there's no doubt about it," Jimenez said. "As a starting pitcher, you want to be the best out there for your team. We haven't been able to do the job. It's not fun. At all. We have to find a way to get back on track."
In allowing six runs in 41/3 innings, Jimenez turned in another in a string of short outings for the Orioles, whose starting pitchers have tested their manager's patience and their bullpen's limits recently. The starters accounted for only 18 innings in the four games in Seattle, and allowed 21 runs while doing it.
"It's been a challenge for us all year," manager Buck Showalter said. "We've got to get that corrected if we want to get where we want to go."
The culprit Sunday was Jimenez, whose starts every fifth day have become a flash point for an Orioles rotation that's built largely on inexperience and unsteady veterans. He was sent out of the rotation last month, and returned only when there was no other choice.
He carried some modicum of progress into Sunday, having won his previous two starts. He didn't allow a hit until the third inning, but four of the first seven hitters he faced worked the count full.
The zeros on the scoreboard belied the effort it took to get them, and that was before the Mariners put him to work when catcher Chris Iannetta drew a leadoff walk in the third inning. A single by Ketel Marte, then botched bunt defense by Jimenez and third baseman Manny Machado loaded the bases. Jimenez fielded the ball, but Machado charged, too, so no one was at third base. Jimenez said they "got confused."
Jimenez registered a pair of early strikes to the Mariners' scalding outfielder Seth Smith, who struck the third pitch into the center-field bleachers for a gut-punch grand slam.
He gave up two more runs in the fourth inning, the last when, after failing to hold center fielder Leonys Martin at first base, he balked a run in.
"He just made a lot of mistakes command-wise," Showalter said. "He was crisp, too. He had pretty good stuff early on. Just a lot of counts, as you've seen, that a lot of this year have been a challenge for him. He gets some counts in his favor, and he either runs it back 3-2 or he makes a mistake 0-2. He's trying to go down and away, [and it's] center-center to Seth Smith. He's hot. Those guys aren't going to miss those pitches. A couple of mental mistakes cost him a couple runs, too."
The San Diego Padres did miss those pitches in Jimenez's first two starts since he returned after crashing out of the rotation last month, but those results flattered to deceive. This is the same Jimenez whose ERA was 6.89 when he was first knocked from his starting spot. Now, it's 6.95, and Jimenez is all but assured of making another start before the All-Star break after the Orioles optioned a tiring Tyler Wilson to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday.
Save for sifting through the flotsam of their Triple-A rotation or paying a premium to upgrade their rotation, this is the one they'll go forward with. Jimenez wore all the weight of the series sweep in his sad expression after the game, but the failure in Seattle was collective.
Top starter Chris Tillman surrendered four runs and didn't complete five innings Thursday, his ERA jumping to 3.71. Kevin Gausman gave the Orioles six solid innings Friday, but Wilson's three innings and Jimenez' 41/3 dealt a foundation-shaking blow to the team. In this series alone, the rotation's ERA jumped from 4.92 to 5.15.
The bullpen, which needed multiple innings from Dylan Bundy on Thursday, Vance Worley on Saturday, and rookie Ariel Miranda on Sunday, is paying the price. Showalter has clearly decided the best way to deploy the team's two most effective pitchers all year — Brad Brach and closer Zach Britton — is to protect leads.
But in staying away from Brach and Britton this series, the Orioles have only given them the opportunity to combine for seven outs in mop-up work. Pitchers like Miranda and Chaz Roe, here out of bare necessity, have pitched in high-leverage innings instead. The Orioles' deficits rarely shrink late in games.
Still, they enter the midway point in the season three games ahead of the second-place Boston Red Sox, with 47 wins and a bright outlook. Showalter didn't take the opportunity to wallow in his staff's collapse after the game.
"Difficult?" he asked. "There's a lot of things more difficult in life than managing that."
Likewise, center fielder Adam Jones defended the pitching staff.
"I'm not disappointed in anybody, because they are going out there giving it their all," Jones said. "So, at the end of the day you have to understand that the people in the box make hefty salaries also. … We've got a great pitching coach. Great bullpen coach. Hell of a pitching staff in my opinion. This series wasn't their series."