Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez tried not to put too much stock in his rocky spring training debut last week, when he failed to get out of the first inning while allowing six runs. His greater goals were repeating his mechanics, refining his secondary pitches and finding his rhythm on the mound.
And in his second Grapefruit League outing, he continued to do that while getting far better results. On Monday, Jimenez turned in the best starting pitching performance in an Orioles spring training that's been short on highlights.
Jimenez threw three scoreless innings, allowing just one hit while striking out three and walking one in the Orioles' 3-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins at Ed Smith Stadium.
The Orioles (0-7-1) remain the only winless team in the Grapefruit League this spring, but Jimenez's outing provided a rare bright spot.
The elements were favorable for pitching Monday afternoon. The wind blew in from left field, keeping several well-hit balls in the ballpark. But Jimenez didn't need much help, retiring nine of the 11 hitters he faced, including the final five.
"It was a pitcher-friendly day," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It was good. We had two or three balls that probably would have been home runs. But Ubaldo was good. He was crisp. He had a good fastball. To be carrying that fastball this early in the year is a good sign, hopefully."
Jimenez retired just one of the seven batters he faced in his first exhibition outing, allowing six runs on three hits and three walks over one-third of an inning against the Atlanta Braves in the Orioles' spring home opener on March 2.
But much as he did last spring, Jimenez recovered quickly in his second spring outing. He allowed just one hit and one walk while recording three strikeouts over his three innings of work despite throwing only his curveball and changeup — both pitches he rarely used last season — as secondary pitches to his fastball.
"I had a better command of the fastball and the breaking ball," Jimenez said. "We kept doing what we were doing last time, which was throwing the curve and the changeup and it was good. I was able to command it."
He allowed a double to Twins center fielder Byron Buxton to open the game, but stranded Buxton on third base.
After Buxton moved to third on a groundout, Jimenez struck out Miguel Sano on three pitches, getting Sano to swing through a 93-mph fastball. He then got out of the inning when a sharp comebacker off the bat of Kenny Vargas deflected off his glove to third baseman Manny Machado, who threw to first to get Vargas.
"It feels way better than when you start giving up so many runs, but the first thing I'm looking for is the things that I'm working on, but when you are able to get out of a situation like that, you feel good," Jimenez said. "You know that even though you're working on things, you have a better result when you have a good command of the fastball."
Jimenez overcame a one-out walk in the second, striking out Ryan Sweeney on a changeup to end that inning, then needed just 10 pitches to retire the Twins in order in the third.
"I was able to get ahead and I stayed ahead," Jimenez said about his third inning. "I threw three or four curves and they were good. All of them were for a strike."
Jimenez said it was important to see positive results on Monday.
"Every time you go out there, you are working on something," he said. "But at the same time you want to see a result, because that's going to make you more comfortable [and] more confident when the season comes. You know you are going to be able to go out there and compete and be there for your team."
After struggling in his first spring start of last season — he retired just four of the 11 hitters he faced, allowing six runs (five earned) over 11/3 innings in a 15-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland — Jimenez went 3-2 with a 2.88 ERA in his six remaining Grapefruit League starts, riding that momentum into the season. Jimenez was the team's best pitcher over the first half of the season, going 7-4 with a 2.81 ERA in 17 starts before the All-Star break.
Jimenez said Monday that he's starting to get into the same comfort zone as last spring.
"Yeah, it felt like every time to the mound I was able to command the fastball and get ahead and stay ahead," Jimenez said. "I think that's what I did today."
Jimenez carried more velocity on his fastball, consistently sitting at 90-92 mph and hitting 93 a few times. His fastball averaged just 90.5 mph last season.
"These guys have a lot of pride," Showalter said. "Actually, he's a little lighter with the same frame. He's worked hard in the offseason. He was one of our most consistent pitchers [last season]. You could make a case he was [the most consistent] last year and it's good to see him have a good outing. He's the first guy for us to go three innings."
In one strong outing, Jimenez lowered his spring training ERA from 162.00 to 16.20.
It has been a rough spring for the Orioles starting rotation as a whole. Jimenez and right-hander Miguel Gonzalez were both battered in their spring debuts, and two other rotation members — right-handers Chris Tillman (hip flexor) and Yovani Gallardo (late signing) — have yet to make their first appearances, which will come later this week.
"It's not only about one guy," Jimenez said. "You could have one guy win 20 games and have a good season, but if the other ones don't do what they're supposed to, you're in trouble. So that's the challenge we have, and that's what we are looking forward to do — to be there as a team."