How much longer can the Orioles afford to stick with Ubaldo Jimenez?

BALTIMORE -- Before the game, Mike Wright lost his spot in the Baltimore Orioles' starting rotation. Ubaldo Jimenez might be next.

Just hours after Wright, who got shelled by the Red Sox on Wednesday, was sent down to the minors, Jimenez took the hill for the series finale against Boston. Along with him on the mound was a whole bunch of baggage -- the emotional kind that comes with knowing that an entire fan base questions your very existence on the roster. On Thursday, he didn't do anything to change that.

Actually, that's not entirely true. Early on, Jimenez -- who entered Thursday ranked last among American League starters in WHIP (1.87) and third-to-last in ERA (6.36) – managed to stymie baseball's best offense, going six-up, six-down for the first time in over a year and limiting Boston to one hit and a walk through the first five innings. At one point, he struck out Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts back-to-back-to-back, finishing off Bogaerts with an 85-mph split-fingered fastball that danced so much, it looked more like a spitter than a splitter.

"Ubaldo was as good as you've seen him for five innings," manager Buck Showalter said.

The strong beginning was so surprising that when the crowd rose to its feet following a strikeout of Betts to end the third inning, it was hard to tell whether the standing O was because Jimenez fanned the blue-hot Betts, who'd homered five times in the previous two games, or simply because he made it through three innings, something he failed to do in his last outing.

But not long after, as tends to happen with Jimenez, the wheels fell off the cart -- along with the axles, horses, reins and everything else. In the sixth inning, each of the first five Boston batters reached base and scored, culminating with a three-run blast by David Ortiz that put the Sox up 5-4. It was a collapse that was all too predictable, which might explain why Showalter's hook was so decisive and sudden: When the sixth batter of the inning, Hanley Ramirez, hit a laser single to left field, the O's skipper was practically out of the dugout before the ball hit the turf.

Granted, this was the Red Sox, who've been terrorizing opposing pitchers the way that the Bogeyman terrorizes small children. Still, by the time it was all said and done, despite the strong first five, Jimenez's ERA had risen nearly a quarter of a run, from 6.36 to 6.59. In 26 starts since last year's All-Star break, he's sporting a 6.02 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP. That's not exactly a small sample size. And it's not exactly what the Orioles had in mind when they in inked him to a four-year, $50 million contract in 2014.

Despite the ugly sixth inning, Jimenez was relatively upbeat after the game, which Baltimore came back to win 12-7 thanks to seven homers in their final five innings of hitting, including two each by Mark Trumbo and Adam Jones.

"It felt good to be out there and doing what I did in the first five innings," Jimenez said. "That's baseball. I had a tough inning. That's not gonna erase how I felt in the first five innings. That's what I'm gonna take for tomorrow, for the next day, and get ready for whenever I have to pitch next."

If the timing sounds a little vague there -- as if Jimenez's spot in the rotation is tenuous -- you can't blame him. Not after the way he has pitched recently. Not after Wright was sent down earlier in the day. Not with Yovani Gallardo expected back from the disabled list soon. Then again, Gallardo probably will fill Wright's spot, and it's not as if Baltimore's farm system is teeming with potential replacements. Not to mention, the O's aren't in the business of flushing $20-something million (the money owed to Jimenez over the remainder of his contract) down the toilet.

So for now, Jimenez remains in the starting five. But how long can the Orioles -- who managed a split with Boston, now have a 4-3 lead in the season series and trail the Sox by one game in the division -- afford to keep him there? How long can the Birds' bats continue to be a masking agent for the ugly truth? For a team that continues to prove it has more staying power than most imagined, how long can they keep relying on Jimenez?

Only time will tell.