NEW YORK — Ubaldo Jimenez has been here before, reaching for answers to explain another ugly run of starts that yet again threaten his spot in the Orioles rotation. Jimenez has been left promising that his moxie will prevail to pull him out of the frustrating spiral the opening month of this season has become.
In the Orioles' ugly 12-4 loss to the New York Yankees on Saturday in the Bronx, Jimenez suffered through the worst of a growing list of bad April appearances. He failed to get out of the fourth inning for the second straight start and allowed seven runs (six earned) — both numbers season highs.
"Keep working," Jimenez said. "I never put my head down. I know it's tough, especially going out there every fifth day and I'm not helping the team at all. I only had one good game and the other ones I haven't been able to get to the fifth inning. I have to find a way to get back on track and I know I can. I just have to keep working."
Take away a 72/3-inning scoreless start at the Cincinnati Reds on April 19 and Jimenez has an 11.15 ERA in his other four starts, all against American League East competition. His season ERA through five starts is 7.43.
It's still early. Saturday's loss dropped the Orioles out of first place for the first time in this young season, but playoff spots can be determined by one win or loss, so every game is important. Asked whether Jimenez's rotation spot is in jeopardy, manager Buck Showalter wasn't committal, but indicated there might not be better options right now than to wait it out and hope the veteran can find his mojo, as he has before.
"We're always trying to put our best foot forward," Showalter said. "We look at everything, and say, 'If not him, then who?' and kind of look at everything. He's not the only one who didn't pitch well today, and he's not the only one who's had a tough start, but it certainly seems to be magnified because he's had his ups and downs."
On Saturday, it came down to a pair of walks and a pair of sinkers to Brett Gardner that stayed flat and served as the perfect slump buster for the struggling Yankees left fielder.
Gardner made Jimenez pay, hitting two homers off him — a solo shot on the Yankees' first at-bat of the game and a three-run blast in the second that gave them a 5-0 lead.
Gardner, who entered the game hitting .188 with no homers and no RBIs in his first 18 games, took Jimenez deep on the second pitch he saw, a 1-0 88-mph sinker that he parked in the short porch in right field. In his second at-bat, Gardner hit a 1-0 elevated sinker into the Yankees bullpen in right-center field.
Gardner's second homer came after Jimenez issued back-to-back walks to Aaron Judge and Greg Bird in a 30-pitch second inning. All three batters Jimenez put on with walks Saturday ended up scoring.
"It doesn't work," Jimenez said. "It's not good at all. If I don't have good movement and then I start walking guys, they're going to take advantage of that and that's what they did today. … I think I have to find my fastball command. I have to stay ahead most of the time. That's what's hurting me the most. I'm falling behind in the count and every time I come back, I get hurt."
Jimenez's struggles Saturday came when the Orioles didn't have a full-strength bullpen after their 14-11 extra-inning loss to the Yankees on Friday night — a game the Orioles led, 9-1.
"I mean, it's a pattern we've seen before and it's frustrating," Showalter said. "He's not the only one, he's not the only one. But it certainly put us in a hole early in a game that we really needed some innings and we just weren't able to deliver."
Ultimately, Jimenez's problems root from falling behind in the count — losing too many 1-0, 1-1 counts and putting opponents into hitters' counts. And on Saturday, his fastball and breaking pitches were missing both high and low. As he has done in the past, Jimenez needs to find a way to attack the zone more efficiently, primarily low in the zone with his sinker and getting ground balls when he's not missing bats.
On Saturday, Jimenez threw his sinker 27 times out of 68 pitches, and of the six times the pitch was put in play, four were hits, including both of Gardner's home runs. He didn't get any swings and misses on the sinker in the loss.
"Ubaldo has thrown a lot of really nice games," catcher Caleb Joseph said. "I think one of the big things with Ubaldo is getting ahead, being aggressive in the zone. The most important pitch for pitchers is strike one. And when he's in the zone and throws that strike one, he usually has good results. Today he wasn't able to do that.
"He was just missing on the other side of the plate. And it is frustrating because we know that he's got it. But there's not a more frustrated guy than him. We know that. We know that's going to bounce back. He did last year. He's bounced back every year. So I'm looking forward to him bouncing back because we are going to need him down the stretch."
Jimenez, who is in his final year before free agency, had rebounded before. Last year, he found a groove after losing his rotation spot right around the All-Star break. He owned a 7.38 ERA in his first 18 appearances, retooled his mechanics in the bullpen and posted a 3.12 ERA in his last eight starts. He pulled off a similar turnaround in the second half of the 2014 season.
Still, Jimenez hasn't owned a higher ERA after his first five starts of any of his previous three seasons with the team, so he's facing adversity earlier in the season than usual. He owned a 6.59 ERA through five starts in 2014 and a 5.20 ERA through five starts last year.
"Yeah it's tough," Jimenez said. "It's tough. I've been there before. I know it tough, but I know I can get out of it, too. I'm going to keep working hard and I'm going to find a way to get back."