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Orioles pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez strong in final spring start

SARASOTA, FLA. — Following his last spring training start on Friday, Orioles right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez looked like he had been beaten up. His right shoulder, right elbow and right ankle were all wrapped heavily with ice, but the smile he wore on his face spoke nothing but content.

Jimenez wrapped up his strong spring by holding the Atlanta Braves to one run on three hits in four innings, striking out five and walking just one. He retired the final eight batters he faced and 11 of his last 12 in the Orioles' 3-2 win.

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Much like his entire spring, he battled adversity early. He fell behind 1-0 two batters into the game. He took a comebacker off his right foot. But by the end of the day he had given another respectable effort.

Jimenez — who struggled through his first season in an Orioles uniform, going 6-9 with a 4.81 ERA in 2014 — came to spring training in a battle with Kevin Gausman for the No. 5 starter spot. Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he won't make that decision until shortly after the season opens on Monday in Tampa Bay — the fifth starter could be used out of the bullpen until April 15 — but Jimenez has made the decision difficult.

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"I think you could tell the first day of camp that Ubaldo came in here with a little different than normal spring training mindset," Showalter said. "Not only did he want to get himself ready for the season, but I think he wanted to [give] a little reminder that this guy at one time was one of the premier pitchers in baseball. None of us are what we once were, but he's still capable of being pretty [good]. … I know Ubaldo is looking forward to kind of putting last year behind him and it started with the spring."

Asked if he was told anything about a starting role, Jimenez said he knew nothing. Asked if it was unsettling going into the season not knowing his role, Jimenez smiled and said, "I've already had one year here, so I'm used to it."

More important to Jimenez is that he will enter the regular season with renewed confidence after getting beaten around last season.

"It's great because if you do what you're doing here and you do it in the season, you're going to be able to get people out," Jimenez said Friday. "It's the same game. I think probably when they sing the national anthem in the regular season, it might be a little bit different. But that's the kind of approach you have to take, making your pitches, keeping the ball down.

"Baseball is not easy. It doesn't matter how things are going, I always find a way to get back on track. I'm happy because of that. I know last year was really hard, but you know, probably having those tough times, will make me a better pitcher and probably a better person."

The day after Jimenez was rocked for six runs — five earned — in his spring debut, unable to get out of the second inning against the Tigers in Lakeland, the Orioles officially announced the hiring of former major leaguer Ramon Martinez as a special assignment pitching instructor.

Martinez — who had a 14-year big league career with the Dodgers, Red Sox and Pirates — pitched under current Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace with the Los Angeles Dodgers and they remain good friends.

When the Orioles announced the hire, they said Martinez, who is also known for being Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez's older brother, would concentrate on helping develop Latin American pitchers throughout the organization. But his more immediate task was mentoring Jimenez.

Jimenez embraced the opportunity. He first met Martinez four years ago while attended a winter ball game in the Dominican Republic. Martinez was the pitcher coach for Licey, the team Jimenez used to play for. Right away, Jimenez was endeared by Martinez's fondness to teach pitching. There was a similarity as pitchers also: Both depended on their sinkers for success, especially later in their careers.

"When I got here, my big question was trying to find out what was wrong with him," Martinez said. "That was my big focus, trying to get him back on track. That's what I love to do. … When I watched him the first time I came in, he looked off a little bit. He had a bit of a mechanic issue, just a tiny bit. I talked to him about it. I picked it up right away and kept working on it."

So the pairing was a natural one. After that ugly outing in Lakeland, they began working together. And since then, Jimenez has posted a solid 2.88 ERA. And he's gotten better every outing, throwing strikes, limiting damage and lowering his walks. Jimenez, who averaged 5.5 walks per nine innings last season, has issues just three walks over his last four starts, spanning 23 innings.

Over his last three spring outings, he compiled a 1.20 ERA, allowing just two runs over 15 innings, posting 11 strikeouts and just two walks.

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Jimenez said Martinez has been a tremendous help in achieving those results.

"He's helped me since Day One, because he's such a smart guy," Jimenez said. "He knows a lot about baseball. He has a lot of experience. He's been there every single day. We've been watching videos after every start. We'll watch videos and then go practice in the bullpen. He's definitely been there for me. It's been a big difference. ... He's been there for Pedro a lot, so he knows a lot about baseball, so since I first met him, he's one of those guys who, as good of a player as he was, he wants you to be good, too."

One of the first things Martinez did was sit down with Jimenez and analyze videos of his delivery. He let Jimenez compare his current delivery to his delivery last season, and also video of his best days with the Rockies.

"I showed him the difference, the difference in last year and in Colorado and then the difference now," Martinez said. "We got into that and he understood what he was doing. Once he got that, it was easy because he picked it up right away just like that. He's working with it and feeling comfortable."

There's no secret Jimenez's delivery is unconventional and it takes just one misstep for him to get out of whack. On video, Martinez showed him how his back foot was collapsing, which prevented him from staying on top of the ball. Also, his hands were coming too far back before he threw, unlike the smoother delivery he had in Colorado.

"It's all about the mechanics," Jimenez said. "Before my mechanics were so messed up that I couldn't have good command of the fastball. When I fell behind in counts, I couldn't come back. I've been working with Ramon in spring training [to] get my mechanics right to where they're supposed to be, staying tall, breaking the hands early so I have time to catch up my arm. That's why everything is good right now. My mechanics are ready. Everything is feeling the way it's supposed to."

Martinez's message to Jimenez was clear: Command your fastball. Don't lean on the breaking ball so much. Rely on fastballs and changeups. Stay ahead in counts.

Results have followed.

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Showalter said Martinez will remain with the major league club once the regular season begins so he can continue to work with Jimenez.

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"It is great because he is getting that confidence back," Martinez said. "He's a great kid. ... The good thing about him is that he picks it up right away. The things that we talk about, he picks it up right away. That's a good sign. ... Every time he comes up, he feels more comfortable and more comfortable."

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