Rockies’ Jimenez gains control of fastball, top NL hitters
AP Sports Writer
Vail, CO Colorado
DENVER (AP) – Ubaldo Jimenez has harnessed his fastball and hitters alike.
By commanding his 100 mph pitch that dips, dives, cuts or slices while breaking bats and buckling knees, the Colorado Rockies’ 26-year-old ace has emerged this season as an elite pitcher, maybe even the game’s best.
To hear the softest-speaking, hardest-throwing ace in baseball talk, however, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
“I’m still learning how to pitch, I don’t know how to pitch yet,” Jimenez insisted with an I’m-completely-serious stare. “There’s a lot of things about pitching that I need to get better at.”
That’s a scary thought for hitters across the National League struggling to hit .207 off Jimenez, who threw the franchise’s first no-hitter at Atlanta last month.
“He’s one of the best right now. But in two years, he’s going to be the best,” Milwaukee outfielder Carlos Gomez said. “I don’t know if he’s going to keep throwing 97, 98, 100. He’s going to be a pitcher that throws 93 to 96 with movement, and that’s hard to find.”
The Dominican right-hander, whose name is often mispronounced (it’s ooh-BALL-doh hee-MEN-ez) even as he’s become a household name, is tied for the major league lead with seven wins. His only loss came May 9 in Los Angeles when the Dodgers made the most of their two hits in seven innings to beat Jimenez 2-0.
He’s made the best hitters in the league – Adrian Gonzalez, Chipper Jones, Andre Ethier, among them – look lost at the plate.
“He’s got a 98-mph sinker,” marveled Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. “It’s hard enough to hit a 98-mph straight ball, but one that comes into your hands late? It’s pretty impressive. I don’t know what Nolan Ryan was like, but 98 with sink is tough to hit.”
So is 100 with dive, 89 with dip and 94 with slice, all of them assaulting Miguel Olivo’s catcher’s mitt that moves nary an micron as Jimenez throws his half dozen different pitches consistently for strikes.
“Right now, I can put them wherever I want, whenever I want,” Jimenez said sheepishly.
“He’s got a video-game repertoire,” Rockies right-hander Aaron Cook said. “I get to chart his games because I throw two days after him. I’m sitting in here watching on TV in the clubhouse, he’s throwing four-seamers, two-seamers, he’s throwing a slider, a split, a curveball and a change-up.”
After the Philadelphia Phillies were busted using binoculars in the bullpen to try to steal signs from Olivo, Jimenez is understandably reluctant to reveal how his catcher calls for a sixth pitch; with most pitchers, Olivo has fingers to spare.
The key to Jimenez’s breakout season was finding fastball command.
Before, he was as lost as the hitters sometimes when it came to guessing where it was going. Now, he’s throwing it with pinpoint accuracy, and that’s transformed him into a paramount power pitcher.
“The location of my fastball, that’s the main thing,” Jimenez said. “Before I couldn’t throw the fastball whenever I wanted. Right now I’m able to locate it and pitch away, pitch inside, pitch down, wherever I want. I feel good on the mound, like I can get any hitter out. It doesn’t matter who’s at the plate.”
Taming his fastball has made his other pitches equally devastating as he has control of his curve, mastery of his splitter and reign over his change-up.
“Now, hitters can’t wait for that 95 mph fastball because all his other pitches he’s throwing for strikes,” Rockies lefty Jeff Francis said.
He’s meshing his physical gifts with his mental approach.
“He’s figured it out, he knows how to pitch now,” Nationals outfielder Nyjer Morgan said. “He understands how to pitch. Instead of trying to throw fuzz every time he can take a little off and get a little movement on it. He’s a hell of a pitcher, probably the best in the game right now, and as long as he knows he can go to another level, the sky’s the limit for that kid.”
What Rockies manager Jim Tracy loves about Jimenez’s dazzling command is that his pitch counts don’t skyrocket like they used to, when opponents would wait him out and relish seeing someone else take the mound in the seventh.
And to what does Jimenez attribute this refinement?
“Well, I have two more years of experience in the big leagues. So, I guess I’m supposed to be better,” Jimenez said, shrugging. “I’m learning how to pitch. As the years go by, you get better and better every day.”
Jimenez loves pitching to Olivo, who won’t resort to calling for fastballs when Jimenez gets into trouble.
“He’s not scared to call any pitch in the count. He’s not going to be, ‘Well, you throw hard, you have to go with the fastball,'” Jimenez said. “That helps me.”
His dogged determination, renowned humility and child-like enthusiasm for learning from anyone and everyone is what has taken him to another stratosphere, Cook said.
“People call Tim Lincecum the freak. But he’s the freak in my mind,” Cook said.
Jimenez single-handedly kept the Rockies relevant while three of their other four starting pitchers were on the disabled list in the first six weeks of the season.
Yet, he doesn’t let his success go to his head.
His willingness to listen and learn came in handy in his no-hitter at Atlanta on April 7. After walking the leadoff batter in the fifth inning – his sixth walk – Jimenez began working exclusively out of the stretch.
“In the fifth inning Bob Apodaca, he just came to me and was like ‘You’ve been throwing good from the stretch, why don’t you just give it a try?'” Jimenez said of his pitching coach’s advice.
He retired the next 15 batters to secure the first no-hitter in franchise history.
Jimenez doesn’t slow down, either. Against Atlanta, he was throwing 98 mph in the ninth.
“That, to me, is the most impressive thing: 120 pitches into it and you don’t know if it’s pitch No. 1 or pitch No. 120,” Washington infielder Adam Kennedy said.
Jimenez is the star pupil in the classroom of baseball, whether it’s heeding the advice of his pitching coach, emulating his childhood idol Pedro Martinez or watching some kid in rookie ball to pick up tips.
“You can always learn more about this game,” Jimenez said. “Not only in baseball, but in life.”
AP Sports Writers Charles Odum, Pat Graham and Chris Jenkins contributed.