What a world: Orioles are in first place and Ubaldo Jimenez has been their ace

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Ubaldo Jimenez was so bad last season that the Orioles basically did everything they could to avoid relying on him in the rotation just months after signing him to a four-year, $50 million contract as a free agent.

However, this offseason he talked extensively about hoping to get healthy after lots of nagging injuries and making an effort to revamp his mechanics with the coaching staff. Whatever he did, it’s been working.

Jimenez shut out the Indians for eight innings Sunday, improving to 7-3 and lowering his ERA to 3.09 with an 89/27 K/BB ratio in 87 innings that represents by far the best mark of his career. He’s been the Orioles’ best starting pitcher this season, which is a statement that would have sounded insane last year.

Sunday’s gem included seven strikeouts and zero walks. It was the third time this season he’s walked zero batters in a start and he’s walked three or fewer batters in 14 of his 15 outings. By comparison, last year Jimenez failed to have a single zero-walk start and walked three or fewer batters in just 13 of 22 outings.

Jimenez’s raw stuff hasn’t changed. His average fastball of 90.5 miles per hour is the exact same as last season and his off-speed stuff has similar velocities to 2014 as well. But he’s trusted that raw stuff far more, cutting his walk rate in half from 5.5 to 2.8 per nine innings while maintaining a strikeout rate near his norm of around one per inning. And in doing so he’s gone from a signing the Orioles immediately regretted to sitting atop the rotation for a first-place team.

And That Happened: Monday’s Scores and Highlights

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Where we stand:

  • The Brewers and Cubs both won, giving them each a half-game boost over the Phillies and a full game boost over the Mets, who lost, but keeping the status quo between themselves. Chicago has a one-game lead over Milwaukee for the second Wild Card and a five-game lead over both New York and Philly;
  • The Nationals lost to the Cardinals, reducing their lead for the top spot in the Wild Card race to a half game. We’ve sort of assumed for a couple of weeks that they were a lock at the top but, know what? They’re not;
  • The Twins put a half-game more on their lead over the idle Indians in the AL Central, making the margin five;
  • The Rays and Indians both had the night off while the Athletics lost, putting the Rays a game and a half behind the A’s in second and first, respectively, in the AL Wild Card race while Cleveland trails Tampa Bay by one and a half.

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Tigers 5, Orioles 2: When I did yesterday’s recap I didn’t realize that this was a wraparound series and none of you corrected me so I guess that tells ya how this matchup rates in our collective consciousness. Jordy Mercer hit a two-run homer in the first inning and Victor Reyes hit a two-run double in the second to help Detroit earn the split.

Brewers 5, Padres 1: Corey Spangenberg spent five years with the Padres before this season but he set any residual loyalties aside while facing his old comrades, driving in three runs, including a tie-breaking, two-run triple in the fourth inning. Zach Davies, meanwhile, allowed one run over five and the Milwaukee pen held San Diego scoreless for the final four innings. The Brew Crew has won ten of eleven.

Twins 5, White Sox 3: The Sox took an early 2-0 lead but those were the only two runs Twins starter José Berríros allowed while pitching into the eighth inning. Jorge Polanco hit a sacrifice fly and Nelson Cruz knocked an RBI single in the second to tie things up and Mitch Garver‘s RBI double in the fifth put the Twinkies ahead for good. They didn’t hit a homer in this one. I hope they feel OK.

Cardinals 4, Nationals 2: Marcell Ozuna drove in all four of the Cardinals runs with a two-run homer and a two-run double. He also nailed a runner at home plate in the fourth to keep the Nats from tying things up:

The Nationals are looking over their shoulder and seeing the possibility of three NL Central teams making the postseason while they’re on the outside looking in. Not saying it’s gonna happen, but it could.

Cubs 8, Reds 2: Kyle Schwarber hit a three-run homer and Nicholas Castellanos hit a two-run double while five Cubs relievers tossed five and two-thirds scoreless innings. Schwarber — who we have always identified with stellar defense, right? — also made this diving catch:

Rockies 9, Mets 4: Rockies pitcher Antonio Senzatela hit a tying, two-run single in the fourth after which Trevor Story, a far more usual offensive contributor, smacked a three-run homer to blow things open for Colorado. In all the Rockies roughed up Steven Matz for seven runs on six hits in four innings. Before that single, Senzatela had been 0-for-44 on the year.  Brandon Nimmo and Jeff McNeil each homered in a losing cause for New York.

Diamondbacks 7, Marlins 5: Robbie Ray pitched five and two-thirds innings of no-hit ball and left the game after allowing only one run in six innings. Once he was gone, however, the Fish put up a five-spot in the top of the seventh to come back from being down 3-0. Their lead didn’t last long as the Snakes put up a four-spot in their half of the seventh, including a bases-clearing three-run double by Jake Lamb, to give themselves back the lead and, ultimately, the game. Lamb also knocked in the game’s first run while being hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the first. There are easier ways to get an RBI but whatever works, right?

Royals 6, Athletics 5: The A’s six-game winning streak comes to an end thanks to some late inning heroics by Royals batters. Specifically, Brett Phillips hit a tying home run off Liam Hendricks in the ninth after which Adalberto Mondesí hit an RBI double to put Kansas City on top. That Mondesí double isn’t an RBI if not for the fact that, one batter earlier, Whit Merrifield reached second thanks to a Ramón Laureano letting the ball simply pop out of his glove. Oops.