ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Given his turbulent three-year tenure with the Orioles, right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez might have been the least likely starter to deliver the team's first complete game in more than two years.
Jimenez regained his spot in the starting rotation by default when right-hander Chris Tillman went on the disabled list two weeks ago. But since then, the Orioles have been treated to a different Jimenez than the one who labored through this season struggling to find the strike zone.
And in the Orioles' 7-3 win over the last-place Tampa Bay Rays on Monday afternoon — the first game of a critical nine-game road trip that will also take them through playoff contenders Detroit and Boston — Jimenez offered one of the most dominating performances by an Orioles starter all season.
"That was fun," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "This is a guy that was one of the best pitchers in the game, and on a given night, will be again. I think you can almost want something too much. Everybody wanted that so much for Ubaldo; the class with which he's handled everything that's been thrown his way. He's pitched some good games for us. At a time of need, he's really stepped up with Chris being out."
Jimenez flipped the script after a first inning that saw him fall behind quickly after Logan Morrison's three-run homer with two outs in the first inning. But Jimenez did not allow a hit after that, tossing eight scoreless innings while retiring the final 17 batters he faced.
After allowing Morrison's homer, Jimenez retired 25 of the last 26 batters he faced, the Rays' only baserunner coming on a fourth-inning walk to Morrison.
Jimenez's outing marked the Orioles' first complete game since Sept. 4, 2014, when Miguel Gonzalez went the distance against the Cincinnati Reds, and was Jimenez's first nine-inning complete game since June 1, 2011, pitching for the Colorado Rockies at Los Angeles.
Jimenez didn't hesitate when asked to compare the outing to the no-hitter he threw for Colorado at Atlanta on April 17, 2010. He did, in fact, throw eight hitless innings after Morrison's homer.
"Everything was good," said Jimenez, who threw 75 strikes in his 114-pitch outing. "The sinker was great, especially after the fifth inning. I was able to get the ball down and they started hitting a lot of ground balls. I was able to throw the breaking ball, the slider and the split behind in the count. Curve was good. Everything was perfect."
The comparison comes easily, because Jimenez recently said that he feels the best about his mechanics — which has often led to his command issues given his unconventional delivery — as he's felt in six years.
"My mechanics are where they're supposed to be and that allowed me to execute pitches and have good command of the fastball," Jimenez said.
Jimenez walked just one batter on the afternoon while striking out six. He utilized his sinker to get nine ground-ball outs and saw an effectiveness with his fastball and splitter that led to a total of 17 swing-and-miss strikes through the game.
"He threw the ball great," catcher Matt Wieters said. "All of his pitches, I could put them down at any time. He had them all working. I thought the best part of today was the mentality, go out there and throw strikes and give us a chance. And we were able to get him some runs and win the game."
All were not so impressed, such as Morrison, who is 5-for-8 against Jimenez in his career and called him "effectively wild" on Monday.
"I think overall we have to do a better job of getting the ball in the zone and barreling him up," Morrison said. "There's no reason that he should have thrown a complete game against us today. I didn't think he was that good. He was good, but he wasn't that good. We got ourselves out a lot."
Still, Jimenez has recorded quality starts in all three starts since assuming Tillman's spot in the rotation, posting a 2.84 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .217 batting average over that span. His biggest improvement, however, might be that he's issued just three walks in 21 2/3 innings in this stretch.
Take into account a spot start Jimenez made for a makeup game in Minnesota on July 28 — his only outing during a 28-day span from early July to early August — and Jimenez has pitched to a 2.70 ERA over his last four starts.
"He's mature enough to know there's going to be another opportunity when we talked originally," Showalter said. "He used the time wisely and got himself ready when the opportunity presented itself. I don't think there's anybody on the team that our guys pull for more just because the way he conducts himself through adversity."
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On Monday, Jimenez needed 25 pitches just to get through the first inning and seemed destined for another short start, but he found his groove quickly, and an eager-to-swing Rays batting order was happy to oblige. Jimenez was at 75 pitches through five innings, but needed just eight pitches in the sixth and seventh innings. He was exactly at 100 pitches after eight innings before Showalter sent him out for the ninth.
"That was awesome," said first baseman Chris Davis, who drove in three runs on the day. "I was pretty fired up to see him go back out there for the ninth and get through the whole game. I think early on in the game he ran into a little bit of trouble, obviously, but he was able to hang in there and keep going and that's kind of the attitude of this team."
When Tillman — the team's most consistent starter — went down with a shoulder injury last month, it spelled doom for the Orioles rotation. But the Orioles have kept afloat in the absence of their ace, who is slated to return from the DL on Sunday.
Not only has Jimenez pitched well, but young guns Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy have taken the much-needed step forward through the pennant race. Jimenez's complete game was the Orioles' sixth quality start in their last eight games.
"It's good, especially this time of the year," Jimenez said. "Everybody knows what we're fighting for and this is the month where we need to give it all. It's great having this kind of game for the guys."