Jimenez honored to be among game's elite
Rockies' ace gets first Opening Day nod in Major Leagues
Opposing hitters, teammates and even manager Jim Tracy are taken aback by the piercing eyes and scowling mouth of Rockies right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez during games. Those who know Jimenez best note that he lives wearing a smile and is soft-spoken.
At times, the contrast even jars Jimenez himself.
"You can even see from the pictures," Jimenez said. "Every time I see my picture, I'm like, 'Wow. You look so ugly and so different.'"
But mean and scowling is beautiful when it comes to pitching, and Jimenez, 26, is turning heads. He earned his first career Opening Day start by being absolutely dazzling last season.
In going 15-12 and setting a club record with a 3.47 ERA in 2009, Jimenez established himself not only as the Rockies' best pitcher, but one to be feared and respected throughout the game. Jimenez is baseball's hardest thrower among starting pitchers. He went six or more innings in 25 straight starts last season, and showed signs this spring of increasing that efficiency -- an improvement that could put him safely in the echelon of the game's top starters.
"I always felt like I wanted to be good every time I had a chance to compete, and show everybody what I'm capable of doing," Jimenez said. "But last year, I started getting better numbers and everybody started seeing what I have.
"It's an honor to be mentioned with all those guys, guys like Tim Lincecum and Adam Wainwright. So this feels good. It's not easy to be the kind of pitcher that I am."
Unsuccessful forays into free agency led the Rockies to concentrate on developing their own starting pitchers, even though many questioned whether effective hurlers could be developed at Denver's altitude. Jimenez was part of that movement.
At one point, when he was in the Minors, assistant general manager Bill Geivett referred to Jimenez as "our Pedro Martinez." Anyone talented enough to receive such a comparison would normally have been subject of a baseball-wide hype parade. But, partly because he was a prospect with a small-to-mid-market club with no pitching tradition, Jimenez was an unknown.
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
|4||LHP||Jorge De La Rosa|
Jimenez, however, came up for good in 2007 and helped the Rockies into both the playoffs and the World Series, and he won 27 games over the past two years. Any listing of the game's best young pitchers has to include Jimenez, and the Rockies are widely picked to win the National League West.
Like his team, Jimenez exudes a quiet confidence.
"It's OK," Tracy said. "I personally feel that we're out there, and it's no secret. We're not gong to sneak up on anybody. Embrace the fact that we feel good about the team that we have. I think we should.
"I see the same guy in Ubaldo. Quite frankly, I haven't gotten as much out of him from a question-and-answer standpoint as I did a year ago. I got 12 words last spring when I started out as a coach, and I've gotten eight words this spring."
Jimenez is so quiet off the field that Tracy refers to him as "The Chief" -- a no-nonsense, all-action character from the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Whether it's off the field and he's his mild-mannered self, or whether the lights are on and he's battling an opponent, the demeanor doesn't change.
"He's out there to dominate, so he takes on that persona if that's what he needs to do," said catcher Chris Iannetta, who caught him throughout his Minor League career and has handled some of his best Major League games. "When it's over, he's back to being his normal self.
"If he has command over his fastball, on some given days he can throw his fastball the entire time. He can mix in an offspeed pitch here and there to keep them honest. But other than that he's got the fastball and the command to dominate."
Jimenez smiled and said he actually used to be a chatty fellow growing up in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic.
"In high school, I used to talk a lot -- they had to call my mom to the principal's office," Jimenez said. "But in my work, on my job, I try to be a serious guy. It's like a battle. There's no way you're going to be smiling or doing anything like that. You have to beat the other guy."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.