BALTIMORE -- In less than a week, Ubaldo Jimenez has gone from sunken to savior.
In Tuesday's 5-3 victory over the Blue Jays at Camden Yards, Jimenez tossed his second straight quality start for the Orioles since returning from a bullpen banishment that folks in Baltimore thought would last approximately ... forever.
That Jimenez, 32, is even in the rotation again is shocking, considering how awful he was earlier in the season. Before being exiled to the pen at the All-Star break, he posted a 7.38 ERA that was the worst in baseball among pitchers with a minimum of 80 innings. He was so ineffective that manager Buck Showalter was reluctant to use him even in the most meaningless of situations. In the first five weeks after the break, with fans clamoring for the team to release him and free up a roster spot, Jimenez, who's in the third year of a four-year, $50 million contract, appeared in just four games.
But when ace Chris Tillman hit the DL with a bum shoulder early last week, it was Jimenez who was tabbed to take his next turn against the Nationals. At first, the move seemed to make no sense. As uninspiring as Baltimore's other options were, any of them -- Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, Vance Worley, Odrisamer Despaigne, anyone with a pulse -- would have been better than Jimenez. Or so went the thinking. But manager Buck Showalter, impressed by Jimenez's career numbers against Washington, rolled the dice on him.
The gamble paid off. Facing Nats ace and NL Cy Young contender Max Scherzer last Thursday, Jimenez turned in what was easily his best performance of the season, allowing one run on five hits over six innings, striking out four and walking none. Even though the O's lost 4-0, the impressive outing was enough to earn Jimenez another turn. That turn came Tuesday against AL Cy Young contender J.A. Happ. Although Jimenez wasn't quite as impressive this time around, he was good enough (6 2/3 IP, 5 H, 3 ER) to keep an explosive Jays lineup in check. In the process, he gave the Orioles a chance to win, which they did, thanks to an eighth-inning, two-run homer by Matt Wieters that broke a 3-3 tie and kept Baltimore from falling five games back in the AL East.
If you're keeping score at home, that's two straight quality starts for Jimenez. Against two really good teams. With two Cy Young contenders opposing him. With the ace-less Orioles' playoff hopes hanging in the balance.
"He's had two good outings in a row in a time of need," said Showalter, whose club moved to within three games of first-place Toronto. "Real proud of him. You can say a lot of different things about things that happened in the game, but none of it means anything if we don't get that type of start from him."
Jimenez's recent success is the byproduct of having a little extra velocity and a little extra time. Against Washington, starting for the first time in 27 days, Jimenez averaged 91.1 mph on his heater, his third-fastest this year.
"It gave my arm a little bit of time to recover," Jimenez said. "I'm fresh."
He also says that while he was in the bullpen, he had time to refine his delivery. Instead of reaching back after breaking his hands, he has gotten back to dropping his right arm straight down first, which has improved his command. The results are noticeable. After walking 59 batters in his first 95 innings this season, Jimenez has issued just two walks in his last 12 frames.
"It's really impressive, going from not throwing very much at all to be able to have two quality starts against two of the better-hitting lineups in baseball," Wieters said. "It shows you that he comes with a professional attitude, even when he hasn't been pitching, which is great. I know his year probably hasn't gone how he wanted it to go, but to be able to stay mentally focused to give us a good outing when we needed it is huge."
It's so huge that when Jimenez clocked out with two down in the seventh, he received a warm standing ovation from the same group of Orioles fans who, not too long ago, were showering him with boos on a regular basis. The message was clear: In the span of five days, Jimenez has gone from chump to champ. From pariah to prerequisite. From public enemy to publicly enamored.
After the game, Jimenez, who will probably get at least two more starts with Tillman slow to return, stood in front of his locker wearing a T-shirt with the message "Vuela Alto," a Julio Iglesias song that means "Fly High."
Behind him, mounted in his cubby, is a large poster that features a picture of his 12-year old niece and the words of Psalm 91 written in Spanish.
He reflected on how and why his fortunes have flipped so freakishly fast.
"I have a lot of faith," he said. "I believe in God, and I have a lot of faith that it doesn't matter what you think. There's a plan that you might not see, but it's going to come your way. You have to be prepared for everything. You have to never give up. You have to find a way to get up and find a way to compete, and I think that's what my faith allows me to do. Never give up."
It's a faith that has been fortified by the birth of his first child, a baby girl who arrived just over a month ago. On Tuesday, little Jimevi Jimenez was at Camden Yards, watching her daddy work in person for the first time in her life.
"It makes me work harder," he said of being a father. "It gives me more inspiration to be a better person and player, because I now have someone that is depending on me. It's been working in a positive way."
The Orioles would certainly agree.