Big rebounds from Jimenez, 'Crush' could mean big things for Orioles in 2015
By Paul Hagen
BALTIMORE -- As happy as Orioles fans were that their Birds won 96 games and the American League East last season, there was also an undercurrent of concern this winter when Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis walked away as free agents. Especially since neither was replaced by an equally accomplished veteran.
It was an understandable reaction, but, hey, there are plenty of different ways to win baseball games. One is to get players back from injuries. Catcher Matt Wieters played only 26 games last year before suffering an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. He's progressing nicely. Third baseman Manny Machado is back after missing half the season with knee problems.
It also helps when players coming off disappointing seasons rebound. Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez and first baseman Chris Davis provided Exhibits A and B of that in Saturday night's 7-1 win over the Blue Jays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
In his first start of the year, Jimenez pitched seven spectacular innings, allowing a lone single and a walk while striking out eight. And Davis hit his first home run of the year. For both, it was renewal and a giant step toward redemption.
"I saw this as a fresh start from the first day of Spring Training," Jimenez said. "This is baseball. You have to forget about what happened in the past. You have to forget quick. It doesn't matter if it's good or bad. It's a new year, a new start. Whatever we did in the past, it's the past. There's nothing you can do."
Said Davis: "Last year was obviously an extremely frustrating year for me. A lot of that was self-inflicted. And I think going into the offseason, that's one thing I really wanted to do was kind of wipe the slate clean and start over and really earn the trust and respect back from my teammates and from the fans."
Jimenez and Cruz were both signed late in 2014, leftover free agents who still hadn't found a landing spot as Spring Training camps were opening. Cruz signed a one-year deal and hit 40 homers. Jimenez was given a four-year, $50 million contract, but he pitched his way out of the rotation and off the postseason roster by going 6-9 with a 4.81 ERA.
The only guarantee the 31-year-old had when he arrived in Sarasota was the $38.75 million that remained on his contract. But Jimenez worked with Ramon Martinez, older brother of Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, and tightened his delivery and beat out Kevin Gausman for the final spot in the rotation. And against the Blue Jays, a team that had averaged 6.75 runs in its first four games, he looked very much like the guy who was so dominant for the Rockies in 2010.
"I was just really impressed with the way Ubaldo threw the ball tonight," Davis said. "I mean, to come out here and shut that team down the way he did, it was impressive. I just thought he pitched. He trusted his stuff and he executed his game plan.
"Any time you've got a guy like that who worked so hard in the spring ... You know what it means to him, you want him to go out there and succeed. That's not always the case, but it was nice to see him get rewarded. I'm proud of the way he battled this spring and showed how much it meant to him to come back and be a factor."
O's manager Buck Showalter said he didn't want to say Jimenez was on a mission this spring because that sounds disrespectful to the military.
"But he came here with a purpose," Showalter said.
Jimenez understands that it will take more than one good start to put 2014 entirely behind him.
"The only thing I'm worried about is to be there for the team. If I pitch good, I'll be there for the team. I can't worry about what everybody thinks," Jimenez said. "You just have to put in your mind that every year is different. Especially when you had a bad year like I did last year."
Davis had a breakthrough season in 2013, blasting 53 homers with an OPS of 1.004. It probably wouldn't have been fair to expect him to match those numbers, but he batted just .196 and hit 26 homers with a .704 OPS. Davis was also suspended for the rest of the season on Sept. 12 after testing positive for an amphetamine.
Davis' homer off Blue Jays starter Aaron Sanchez was an opposite-field shot, and he admitted that it was nice to get the first one out of the way.
"It's hard to say it doesn't mean anything, because as a power hitter, that's your game," Davis said. "I think the older I get, the more it's about just having good at-bats and not giving pitches away. Not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. But, yeah, it's nice to be rewarded every once in awhile."
The Orioles haven't won the offseason much in the past few years. But they've won plenty of games during the season because they've had players who stepped up when they needed to.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.