Ubaldo Jimenez's biggest goal for spring training is to make the mechanical adjustments he's working on in his delivery feel like second nature, so he can concentrate on getting hitters out rather than his form.
That's a major reason why the Orioles started him in the Grapefruit League opener on March 3, to ensure Jimenez would get seven outings before the season. It's also why the Orioles have Jimenez making most of his starts on the road, so he can face better lineups while attempting perfect his delivery.
Results have been a mixed bag. His pitching lines haven't been inspiring, but bit by bit, it seems like he's making progress.
In his third spring start Friday afternoon against the Toronto Blue Jays, Jimenez reached his projected innings total for the first time. He also became the first Orioles pitcher to go four full innings this spring in the Orioles' 5-3 loss to the Jays at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
He finished allowing three runs — all in the second inning — on five hits. Perhaps most importantly, he didn't walk a batter. He had issued seven walks over his previous two spring outings.
"A lot of the counts were in his favor," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "That's a pretty good lineup they're running out there. It's not easy getting on a bus two hours and coming out here. I'm OK with where he is right now, but we'll see what the end product is."
Jimenez said he was also pleased with the way he felt.
"Toolwise, I was able to put everything in the game, the things that I've been working on," he said. "My mechanics, I think it's been the best because I had really good command of the fastball. … I felt really comfortable out there. I could throw the fastball wherever I wanted, inside or outside. I felt good."
Jimenez is one of six Orioles starters competing for five spots in the rotation, and his place is by no means guaranteed after his struggles last season. In the first year of a four-year, $50-million contract, he battled with his control and eventually was demoted to the bullpen.
"He has a year under his belt. We kind of know when it's good and when it's challenging," Showalter said of evaluating Jimenez. "I think the other team tells you as much as the line does. It's not like he's getting cuffed around. ...
"Everyone is dying to embrace him. I know our fans, and if he can help the Orioles win, [they will like him]. That's up to us. You've got to give them something to embrace you about."
Jimenez saw Friday's outing as a step forward. He entered the afternoon having allowed seven runs over 3 1/3 innings, and he was removed mid-inning in both previous outings after reaching his pitch count prematurely.
Jimenez demonstrated his best control of the spring Friday. Along with not issuing a walk, 42 of his 63 pitches were strikes. He still had a few issues. He uncoiled two wild pitches and hit a batter to open the three-run second inning.
He retired the Blue Jays in order on just eight pitches in the first inning. After he hit Toronto right fielder Jose Bautista to start the second inning and Bautista moved to second on a wild pitch, Daric Barton plated the first run with a single.
Later in the inning, two former Orioles got the better of him. Danny Valencia singled, and Chris Dickerson hit a two-run double down the right-field line. Dickerson was thrown out trying to extend the hit to a triple, as second baseman Jonathan Schoop's relay nabbed him.
"Just a couple of hits, and then a bad pitch for a double, and that's it," Jimenez said. "It's not like I got in trouble for walking guys or anything. It's just part of the game."
Jimenez allowed the leadoff batter to reach in both the third and fourth innings, but he prevented any further damage. In the third, he picked off shortstop Jose Reyes after Reyes reached on a bunt single. In the fourth, he stranded Bautista — who hit a leadoff single and advanced on a wild pitch — at third base.
"It felt great, especially going to the fourth inning. It was the first time I've done it this year," Jimenez said. "Especially having a guy at third base and leaving him there, I felt really good."
Jimenez is continuing to tweak an unconventional delivery that has many parts. After he was sent to the bullpen last season, he stopped placing his hands above and behind his head, and the result was winning his last two decisions. This spring he's focusing on a smoother delivery.
"There are some things he's doing that, I don't want to say are drastic, but they're different," Showalter said. "It's taken a little while, but I think every outing's been a little bit better.
Jimenez will have four more spring training outings before the season begins.
"We still have another three weeks down here," Showalter said. "That's why we started him right after the chute to give him as [many innings as possible]. That being said, we're going to find out who the best five are."