DENVER -- The paying spectators at Coors Field received Ubaldo Jimenez bobblehead dolls before Sunday afternoon's 9-5 victory over the Cubs. But Jimenez felt more like a spectator than the bobble-worthy pitcher.
The Rockies are tied with baseball's best record, at 12-4, but that record was built entirely without Jimenez, who experienced the flareup of a cut on the cuticle of his right thumb on Opening Day, when he gave up seven hits and six runs in six innings. He has not pitched since.
"The way we've been playing, it's not like they missed me a lot," said Jimenez on Sunday, which happened to be the anniversary of his no-hitter, the first in Rockies history.
But he's returning right when the Rockies need him. Jimenez, who won 19 games last year and finished third in the National League Cy Young Award voting, will start on Tuesday night for the second of three games against the defending World Series champion Giants at Coors. Jonathan Sanchez will pitch for San Francisco.
ubaldo and the giants
|Aug. 23, 2009
COL 4, SF 2 @ Coors Field
|In the game that signaled his arrival as an ace pitcher, Jimenez outdueled Giants star Tim Lincecum by holding the Giants to two runs and six hits in eight innings. Jimenez struck out nine. In the key at-bat, he worked Pablo Sandoval into a grounder to end an eighth-inning threat.|
|Aug. 28, 2009
SF 2, COL 0 @ AT&T Park
|This one, another matchup with Lincecum, was not Jimenez's fault. He held the Giants to two runs and seven hits in seven innings, but one of the hits was a Sandoval fifth-inning solo homer. Todd Helton was the lone Rockies player with more than one hit.|
|Sept. 15, 2009
SF 10, COL 2 @ AT&T Park
|The Giants forced Jimenez to throw 92 pitches in 2 2/3 innings, and bested him for six hits and seven runs, six earned. Sandoval and Juan Uribe doubled. Jimenez struck out six and walked two.|
|May 31, 2010
COL 4, SF 0 @ AT&T Park
|This was the second of Jimenez's two complete games in 2010. The other was a no-hitter at Atlanta. In this one, Jimenez struck out 9 and gave up four hits while running his record to 10-1.|
|July 3, 2010
SF 11, COL 8 @ Coors Field
|Jimenez admitted losing concentration after a call on a potential double play didn't go his way. He gave up seven runs on five hits, including an Aubrey Huff home run.|
|Aug. 4, 2010
COL 6, SF 1 @ Coors Field
|Needing to rebound from a difficult start the last time he faced the Giants, Jimenez held the Giants to one run and four hits in seven innings. Jimenez also scored a key run by dashing all the way from first base on a Carlos Gonzalez double.|
|Sept. 1, 2010
SF 2, COL 1 @ AT&T Park
|Jimenez struck out 10 and held the Giants to three hits in eight innings. But Lincecum was every bit as dominant, striking out nine against one walk in eight innings.|
It's a fitting return for Jimenez, who always seems to cross paths with the Giants at significant points of his career. It was on Aug. 23, 2009, that he signaled he was ready for stardom when he faced down San Francisco for eight innings of a 4-2 victory that was significant in the Rockies' late run to the playoffs.
He is 5-5 with a 3.13 career ERA against the Giants. Last season he went 2-1 with a 3.00 ERA and .168 batting average against in three meetings with them.
"I can tell you this, and promise you this, that he's champing at the bit, and in his own subtle way that he does things, he'll probably send a wonderful message back to us ... 'Thanks for holding the fort down till I could get back,' " manager Jim Tracy said.
This April has been a nearly complete reversal from the same month a year ago.
Jimenez began the 2010 season 5-0 with a 0.79 ERA in five starts covering 34 1/3 innings, nearly seven frames per start. Other than Jorge De La Rosa, who went 3-1 in April, the rotation struggled. By month's end, the Rockies were just 11-12.
Through Sunday, Rockies starters were 9-1, good for the highest winning percentage in baseball, and tied with the Indians (9-3) and Rangers (9-2) for the most wins. The starters also have a 3.60 ERA, sixth-best in the NL and 10th-best in baseball.
Although he likes what he sees from his fellow starters, Jimenez said that not participating has been difficult.
Jimenez has been a workhorse, throwing 198 2/3 innings in 2008, his first full Major League season, and increasing to 218 in 2009 and 221 2/3 in 2010. To find any blemish on his health record, you have to go back to 2004, when he missed most of the year at the Class A level with a scapular stress reaction in his right shoulder.
"It was seven years ago," Jimenez said. "I had forgotten about it. But right now, since they put me on the DL, it brought back a lot of bad memories. That's not a place where you want to be, especially at the beginning of the season. I was really excited for Opening Day, for the first moment of the season. You don't want to get hurt, but this is part of the game. You have to find a way to fight through and get back on the mound.
"That's the thing. You want to be out there. You want to do your thing, too. You want to feel part of the team, like you're giving something to the team."
The issue with his cuticle cost him a start during Spring Training, and though he brought the condition under control quickly, it reappeared as he was preparing for Opening Day. That game, which the Rockies eventually lost, 7-6, in 11 innings, was a mental and physical struggle for Jimenez.
A fastball that often travels above 100 mph and routinely reaches 98 stayed at 91 and 92. But Jimenez insisted velocity wasn't the issue. Altering his grip to prevent the seams from irritating the thumb, and worrying that there would be pain, prevented him from placing pitches where he wanted them.
"I had that worry in my mind, that I couldn't grab the ball," Jimenez said. "You're fighting against the hitters, and you're fighting against your mind, like, 'It's going to hurt.' If I'd been capable of throwing the ball without hurting my finger, I'd probably throw 92 or 93 and get some hitters, because I would have been able to locate my fastball. But I had that in my mind, that it was going to hurt."
Jimenez can help shore up a key area of the club. Going into Monday's game against the Giants, the Rockies' bullpen had logged 51 2/3 innings, fourth-most in the NL. Last year, the Rockies also ranked fourth in the league in bullpen innings.
Jimenez is using a lotion on the thumb to prevent it from becoming dry and cracking. In an injury rehab start against Athletics Minor Leaguers last Wednesday, he averaged 94 mph on his fastball and reached 97 twice.
It remains to be seen how hard and how well he can throw his fastball on Tuesday.
"I'm not going to throw as hard as I did this time last year," he said. "I haven't been able to let it go in a while. I have to get my back in shape in order to throw hard again like I used to, but it doesn't have to be that hard. As long as you have good movement and good location, it doesn't matter how hard it is."
Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is expecting something special anyway.
"Any time your ace goes out there, you expect to win that day," Tulowitzki said. "There's no better feeling than going out on the field knowing that the other team's not looking forward to facing the pitcher that day. I know that's the case with Ubaldo.
"I think his velocity will be there. Time will tell, but he knows how to pitch now. He competes. Say he's 70 percent. I'll take 70 percent Ubaldo over a lot of guys at 100 percent."
Jimenez is just happy to finally be a part of a team that's been hot.
"It's really frustrating, after how hard I work to get my body in shape, to get my arm in shape, then a little thing like that gets you out of the game," Jimenez said. "But that's part of being a pitcher. You need all of your fingers, your arm, your legs, everything. That's the only weapon we have."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.