Rockies ace Jimenez hits some speed bumps
Ubaldo has taken a U-turn.
Colorado ace Ubaldo Jimenez is off to the best start in this ``Year of the Pitcher,'' with a 14-1 record and a 2.27 ERA. He's the odds-on favorite to get the ball for the NL in the All-Star game, and with one more start this week, he could become the first pitcher in a decade to win 15 games by the break.
His nasty repertoire includes a ridiculous six different pitches - and variations of each - that he regularly throws for strikes on any given count, and some hitters swear they've never seen a fastball dip and dive like his is doing this year. He even threw a no-hitter against Atlanta in April.
But Jimenez has allowed 17 runs and 19 hits over his last 17 2-3 innings for an astonishing 8.66 ERA over his last three starts.
``We like to talk about this under the assumption that this guy is just a machine,'' Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. ``But he's not. He's human.''
Before this bad stretch, Jimenez's ERA was a minuscule 1.16, in striking distance of Bob Gibson's modern day record of 1.12 set in 1968, the original ``Year of the Pitcher,'' when Denny McClain won 31 times and hitters were so overmatched that the mound was lowered the next year from 15 inches to 10 to even the playing field.
Jimenez is having such a great year that it's not preposterous to talk about 31 wins even though he pitches every five days, not every four like McClain did.
To have any shot, though, Jimenez can't waste any time rediscovering his magic. He'll face St. Louis' Chris Carpenter (9-2, 3.16 ERA) on Thursday at Coors Field in a marquee matchup of All-Stars.
All it takes is one bad inning to ruin things, and Jimenez has had one in each of his last three starts.
He was sabotaged by four-run sixth innings against Boston and San Diego - the Padres were without a hit through five - and the San Francisco Giants trounced him for seven runs in the third inning of his last start, five of them after an umpire's questionable safe call on what would have been an inning-ending double play.
Jimenez usually brushes off bad breaks, but he admittedly starting overthrowing after the close call went against him and he served up his first grand slam in 100 major league starts. Travis Ishikawa, making his first start since May 19, drove an off-speed offering into the right-field seats for his first career slam.
This rough stretch has led to a series of questions about Jimenez's durability and mindset, and measured responses from the 26-year-old right-hander and the Rockies.
No, his arm is fine. The spotlight doesn't bother him, and he hasn't hit a wall.
``I saw a bad third inning and then I saw five others where they didn't come close to running a run across the plate,'' Tracy said after Jimenez's last start, on Saturday. ``He had a lapse. It happens. I think he's still 14-1 and his ERA is in the low 2s. He's still a pretty good pitcher in my mind.''
Despite giving up four or more earned runs in each of his last three games, Jimenez has a win and two no-decisions in that span thanks to an offense that finally has his back after providing little support while he was lights-out for nearly three months. His only loss was against the Dodgers, when he allowed one run and two hits in seven innings.
Jimenez attributed the first two starts of his slump to a mechanical flaw. He was occasionally opening up his left shoulder a split-second too soon on his delivery, which ruined his fastball command.
The same thing happened last time out, only it was his emotions that got to him, the first time that's happened all season.
``I overthrew a couple balls, trying to do too much after (the umpire's call),'' Jimenez said. ``That's the reason why I was flying open and my ball was staying up. I thought I was out of the inning and I had to get back on the mound. ... I was trying to overdo it after that, trying to strike everybody out.''
This perhaps was most disconcerting of all to Jimenez, the humble ace who walks to and from the ballpark every day. He has learned to harness his emotions as well as his fastball this season, the primary reasons he's become one of the game's best pitchers.
``I have to find a way to get better,'' Jimenez said. ``I have to learn from my mistakes.''
His pitching coach, Bob Apodaca, had no doubt he will.
After all, Jimenez has come a long way.
In years past, he had the same unhittable stuff he does now but he often was forced to hand the ball over to his manager in the seventh inning because he couldn't escape a jam when he started to tire or his pitch count would balloon trying to get out of a mess.
During an evaluation at the end of last season, Apodaca sat down with Jimenez and said the one thing that would put him over the top was controlling his fearsome fastball.
``Not to add another pitch or this or that or throw his slider better. It was to improve his fastball command,'' Apodaca said. ``I mean, that word 'command,' it really has a certain connotation to it. He still hasn't mastered the fastball. He's commanding the fastball. When he starts mastering the fastball, then you're going to see another rung that he's reached.''
For now, Jimenez will concentrate on regaining his fastball command in those innings where it begins to escape him. And while his recent numbers aren't pretty, he has faith he'll figure it out.
``I have learned to become a better pitcher,'' he said. ``Before, I used to only throw hard and right now I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do out there.''