DENVER -- Rockies pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez receives calls from family members when they read or see reports identifying him as a frontrunner for the National League Cy Young Award. He handles the praise with the reminder that "It's really early in the season to start thinking about anything like that."
But the 26-year-old right-hander admits that growing up a baseball fan in San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic, he never thought he'd see any link between Cy Young and the Rockies, no matter the pitcher.
"It's crazy," he said, breaking into a smile. "I remember I used to see the Rockies games and they were 11-10, 15-14. Nobody was thinking about this. It's kind of crazy. Everything has changed."
Call Jimenez the Rockies' agent of change.
He made headlines on April 17, when he threw the first no-hitter in Rockies history in a 4-0 victory at Atlanta. But Jimenez has made sure no one considers that a fluke. Through eight starts this season, Jimenez is 7-1 and leads the Majors with a Bob Gibson-esque 1.12 ERA. He has 54 strikeouts in 56 1/3 innings and has held opposing hitters to a .184 batting average.
He has pitched six or more innings and given up two or fewer runs in each of his first eight starts of the season. In the past 90 years, just five pitchers have begun the season with eight or more starts in which they gave up three or fewer runs, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Jimenez is tied with Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard for the NL lead in wins. Among starters, Jimenez's wins are one more than those of the Giants' Tim Lincecum, winner of the past two NL Cy Young Awards, and the Phillies' Roy Halladay, who won the award in the AL in 2003 with the Blue Jays and placed himself on the NL favorites list merely by joining the Phils this past winter in a trade.
"He's ready," Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca said of Jimenez taking his place among pitching's elite. "He's been preparing for this for a couple of years."
After Jimenez held Washington to two runs and seven hits in eight innings of a 6-2 victory last Sunday, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman cast a primary vote, even though the Baseball Writers Association of America will cast the votes that count after the season.
"He's the Cy Young for the first quarter of the season, if that means anything," said Riggleman, whose team managed two runs and 12 hits in 15 1/3 innings against Jimenez while losing to him twice this season.
D-backs standout pitcher Dan Haren said, "He pitches in a hitter's ballpark, so he throws more strikes and he's not going to get beat by the walk. He's really come into his own."
Jimenez has garnered enough respect -- both from his pitching and the fact he has a 100 mph fastball -- that the Dodgers didn't exactly go into a victory dance after handing him his only loss. Jimenez gave up one run in seven innings of a 2-0 loss at Dodger Stadium on May 9.
"You're sort of a little shy about saying that [Dodgers starter Clayton] Kershaw outpitched him, because Jimenez pitched [a great] game," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said.
It's not a total surprise that Jimenez has become the most feared pitcher ever to wear purple pinstripes.
Most Major League wins since Aug. 1, 2009 (Source: STATS Inc.)
"Come on, a guy throwing that hard?" said former teammate Willy Taveras, a center fielder who was recently designated for assignment by the Nationals. "If you see guys around with his stuff, they're all pitching like he's pitching -- Halladay, Lincecum, on and on."
In a game last August against the Reds, Jimenez threw 13 pitches that exceeded 100 mph. And this year, on May 3 against the Padres, he threw eight pitches that exceeded 100 mph, according to Complete Game Consulting, which uses the PitchFX data that is published on MLB.com's Gameday feature.
Billy Scherrer, special assistant to the general manager with the White Sox, saw Jimenez's potential immediately.
"Two or three years ago when I first saw him, and I saw all 30 clubs, I made a comment to Jim Fregosi [a former Major League manager, now the top advance scout for the Braves] -- I said, 'I've seen the best pitcher, the best arm in baseball, and it's Ubaldo Jimenez,'" Scherrer said. "He said, 'Who?'
"I said maybe his best pitch is his split. He laughed. Then he saw him and laughed, and said, 'You're right.'"
After his team absorbed the no-hitter, Braves manager Bobby Cox was in no way surprised.
"He's as hard to hit as anybody. I said that when he first came up," Cox said after the game.
The Rockies signed Jimenez for $50,000 in 2001 -- the same season that Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle began Rockies contracts totaling $172.5 million in what was to be an ill-fated experiment. Jimenez breezed through the Minors, with 702 strikeouts in 721 1/3 innings before joining the Rockies' rotation for good in 2007 during the late-season run that landed them in the playoffs and, ultimately, the World Series.
But before he made it, he had to overcome a stress reaction (the beginnings of a stress fracture) in the back of his right shoulder. The injury cost him much of the 2004 season in Class A.
His motion is unorthodox. He brings the ball downward, to hip level, before whipping it toward the plate. Most pitchers don't bring the ball below chest level. Back then, Jimenez also hooked his wrist at the bottom of the windup. If you think he is frightening to face now, imagine what it was like back then.
"I faced him a lot in the Minors [in high-A]," Giants outfielder Travis Ishikawa said. "His big thing was that he was wild. Now that he's gotten to the big leagues, he's found command."
It was then that Jimenez showed the aptitude that's become such a key to his ability to make adjustments on the fly in games now. Jimenez changed his motion enough to reduce injury risk without losing power.
"Before I got hurt, I didn't stop my arm at the back," he said. "Right now, I probably stop it a little bit, but I don't have the hook anymore," Jimenez said. "Right now everything is good, so I don't even worry about it. I know a lot of people talked about it, said I wasn't going to be able to throw a lot of strikes. But I think I proved them wrong."
Royals pitching coach Bob McClure, who worked in the Rockies' Minor League system and saw a young Jimenez in Major League camp, said club officials felt health was the key.
"He was a guy you could look at and go, 'If this guy could get it in the zone, with his competitiveness and no fear, and his desire to be good, he'd really turn into something.'" McClure said. "And he has. To me, with those kind of people, it's no accident."
The final issue for Jimenez was harnessing his considerable skills.
"Believe me, that no-hitter won't be the only one he'll throw."
-- Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano, on Ubaldo Jimenez
Jimenez has six different pitches: a four-seam fastball that is capable of triple digits, a two-seam sinking fastball, a slider, a curveball, a changeup and a split-finger pitch. He can throw the change and split at 90-92 mph, which is the speed of many pitchers' regular fastball.
"Sometimes I think about it, but it's like a headache. I have so many pitches, I have to study my pitches to see which one to use," Jimenez said with a laugh.
Scherrer said it might be good for Jimenez to drop a pitch, but, "It's hard to come up and say, 'Bag that.' Bag what? A 60-70 curveball, a 60-70 split or an 80 split, whatever you want to give it on a grade system?"
In scouting lingo, an 80 is considered the top grade, so even Jimenez's complimentary pitches are considered well above average.
Jimenez made his Major League debut in the last game of 2006. He spent most of 2007 at Triple-A Colorado Springs, but joined the big club when three of its five starters suffered injuries late in the year. He went 4-4 with a 4.28 ERA in 15 starts, participated in the miracle stretch run, and went 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA in three postseason games, including Game 2 of the World Series. In Game 2 he lasted just 4 2/3 innings and gave up two runs in a 2-1 loss to the Red Sox, who swept the Rockies.
At the beginning of 2008, his first full season, Jimenez was impressive at times, but he endured a stretch in which the Rockies lost 10 straight games in which he started.
During that rough stretch, Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca suggested that Jimenez talk with the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano, one of the game's top power pitchers. Zambrano told Jimenez he was "trying to be an 84, 85 mph pitcher," yet he had dominant power pitches. It clicked.
"Believe me, that no-hitter won't be the only one he'll throw," Zambrano said.
From June 27, 2008 until the end of that season, Jimenez went 11-6 with a 3.55 ERA. He finished the year 12-12 with a 3.99 ERA, and the Rockies quickly signed him to a four-year, $10 million extension. Last season, he became the Rockies' clear ace. He finished 15-12 with a 3.47 ERA that is the club record for a starter.
"We all know what a great arm he has, what great stuff he has, but his confidence wasn't all there yet," said Padres catcher Yorvit Torrealba, who caught Jimenez during his unsteady early period, but was with him as he turned the corner in 2008 and blossomed last season. "Now he realizes that 'I've been here for a while. I have the confidence and I can get hitters out here.' I see this guy winning 20 games."
Rockies manager Jim Tracy pushed Jimenez on one point last season -- starting games more efficiently. Jimenez set a club record by pitching six or more innings in 25 straight starts from May 1 to Sept. 7. But Tracy told Jimenez he wanted him to think of being efficient enough early that he can pitch complete games, or pitch all the way until the closer appears.
In his first 12 starts of last season, through which he was 1-6, Jimenez averaged 20.4 pitches per inning in the first and second innings of games. But during his streak of 25 starts of six or more innings, he trimmed the average to 16.2, according to STATS Inc. This year, STATS Inc., has him at 14.3 pitches per inning in the first two frames.
"He and I had two different sit-downs last summer and talked about this," Tracy said. "Because, if I have to take you out [early], that doesn't mean I'm bringing in an insufficient reliever. That means I'm taking out a guy with some unbelievable stuff, and the other side of the field is taking a deep breath and saying, 'Hey, bring in anybody. Just take that guy out.'"
Jimenez has pitched at least seven innings in five of his eight starts this season.
"Right now, I'm not scared," Jimenez said. "It's not like I was scared before, but it's confidence. I'm able to do it. That's because of my mind. I put in my mind that I can go out there and get anybody out, it doesn't matter who."