Ubaldo's performance alleviates concerns
CLEVELAND -- Jose Bautista was at the plate, and the count was 3-1.
This, kids, is dangerous territory for an opposing pitcher.
But the way Ubaldo Jimenez handled it Saturday at Progressive Field just might bode well for the Cleveland Indians.
"He's a great hitter," Jimenez would say later. "When you're behind in the count to him, you don't want to throw a cookie up there."
So Jimenez instead went with a sneaky little number, a slider that started at the hands and ended in the zone, to buckle Bautista, who started toward first only to realize he had just been saddled with strike two. He went on to fly out, as Jimenez prolonged his no-hit bid on a chilly, but sunny spring afternoon.
Did Jimenez capture the no-no?
He didn't quite cross the finish line, and neither, in fact, did the Indians, who are now 0-2 in games they woulda-coulda-shoulda won after falling to the Blue Jays, 7-4, in another round of extra innings.
But the fact that Jimenez shook off a suspension and dabbled with perfection in an eventual no-decision had positive vibes flowing through the Cleveland clubhouse.
Jimenez, after all, is on the short list of guys whose performance this season will have a drastic, decisive impact on their club's ability to contend. And this is an Indians club that finished ninth in the American League in runs last season. The two offseason signings that purportedly addressed that deficiency were Grady Sizemore, who is out until at least June following back surgery, and Casey Kotchman, who has yet to hit a ball out of the infield.
In other words, the Indians have to pitch to contend with the Tigers. And their pitching staff rises to another level if Ubaldo -- their prized acquisition after selling the farm at last year's July Trade Deadline -- does the same.
"That was the reason behind making the move," manager Manny Acta said. "Having a guy like him and [Justin] Masterson together, if he can be the guy we're envisioning him to be and you're going to send those two guys back-to-back like we have the last two days, it makes a big difference in the standings."
Of course, you wouldn't know it to look at the standings today. The Indians have wasted two standout starts en route to 0-2.
But Masterson captured the club's ace role with a breakout 2011, and Jimenez stands as a separator -- assuming, of course, that the bats have a little more fight in them than what's been displayed so far.
Acta is quick to caution that the Indians are not looking for the Jimenez of 2010 , the guy who completed an April no-hitter for the Rockies and went on to win 19 games with a 2.88 ERA.
The Indians would be content for Jimenez to simply scratch that surface. But the complication of his delivery makes consistency a conundrum. And though the Indians have worked with him on his stride toward the plate after his erratic 2011, they are not, in Acta's words, "going to be banging on him every five days" until changes take place. Minor changes to stride aside, Jimenez's stab-and-slingshot delivery will remain untouched.
"It's tough," Acta said. "It's called muscle memory. Once you've done something a zillion times, you just can't grab a guy and say, 'You've got to do this or that with your arm.'"
And so it is ultimately up to Jimenez to make the most of his unorthodox mechanics. Repetition, repetition, repetition, all with an eye on improved command and improved efficiency.
He showed flashes of that Saturday, though ultimately his bid for the win, as well as the no-no, was foiled by command woes that cropped up as he ran out of gas. In the seventh, he issued two walks and a wild pitch to put Kelly Johnson and Adam Lind into scoring position, and Brett Lawrie broke up the no-hitter with a two-out single to center to bring both runners home.
But one thing was certain: This was not the same Jimenez who sounded cause for alarm with a 7.43 ERA, 30 hits allowed and 15 walks in 23 innings in Spring Training. There were concerns about Jimenez's velocity early in camp, though when the topic came up in a one-on-one with Acta midway through camp, Jimenez just laughed at the skipper.
"Don't worry," Jimenez told him, "this is Spring Training."
The velocity crept back toward an acceptable range in his last few starts, but Jimenez's spring still ended on a decidedly sour note. His plucking of Troy Tulowitzki last Sunday wasn't the classiest of moves, and an inevitable five-game suspension followed. But he appealed said suspension long enough to make his 2012 debut, and he'll drop the appeal as the Indians take advantage of an off day, meaning he won't really miss his turn in the rotation.
All along, as the questions mounted about the Cactus League numbers and the rocky afternoon against the Rox, Jimenez calmly reminded people that he'd be at his best when the results counted.
They counted Saturday, and they were impressive. And that ability to turn to the breaking ball in hitters' counts was especially important.
"Nobody's saying he's going to pitch like this every five days," Acta said. "But he gave us confidence he was going to be fine, and he gave us peace of mind today."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.