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Ubaldo Jimenez draws up his left leg, rears back and extends his right arm behind him, as if he's reaching into his back pocket for the pitch. In the moment before he lurches forward, the question hangs in the air: What will it be? The Rockies righthander's fastball is a missile that might dip, dart or dive as it crosses home plate. His changeup, delivered from the same arm slot and with the same arm speed, buzzes toward hitters 10 mph slower and collapses with as much as a 10-inch break toward the dirt. His curveball, too, drops out of sight, like a pool ball into a pocket. Jimenez also has a slider, a splitter and a cutter—six pitches in all, a staggering arsenal that has not been seen "perhaps since Juan Marichal," says Bob Apodaca, Colorado's pitching coach.
In the second inning of a game against the Giants earlier this season, the hitter is San Francisco shortstop Juan Uribe. The pitch out of Jimenez's hand is a 99-mph fastball that screams toward the catcher's right knee, a good five inches outside; abruptly scuds, like a Wiffle ball, toward the righthanded Uribe; and finally drops, preposterously, into the catcher's mitt over the heart of the plate. It is a called third strike, and slo-mo replays of the backdoor heater will be dissected like the Zapruder film on baseball websites under such headings as DID UBALDO JIMENEZ THROW THE BEST PITCH EVER? After the game, a shutout to beat Tim Lincecum, Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval states the obvious. "Best pitcher in the National League," he says of Jimenez, even as Lincecum, winner of the last two NL Cy Young Awards, dresses a few lockers away.
This is being hailed as the Year of the Pitcher, but no hurler has come close to matching the brilliance of Jimenez, Colorado's quiet, humble ace. The 26-year-old lives with his parents, who have followed him from the family's native Dominican Republic, in a loft apartment in downtown Denver. He walks the three blocks to and from the ballpark, often without being stopped for an autograph or a photo. Rockies manager Jim Tracy calls him Chief, not because of Jimenez's stature in the clubhouse but because he is heard from about as often as the mute Native American character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
But NL hitters know: Right now Jimenez is the Baddest Pitcher on the Planet, a 6'4", 215-pound intimidator so effective in his fifth major league season that for a while it looked as if he might challenge Bob Gibson's modern ERA record of 1.12, set in 1968. Even after he allowed a season-high six runs in 5 2/3 innings in a no-decision against the Red Sox on June 23, Jimenez's numbers were startlingly good: He was 13--1 with an 1.60 ERA, and had allowed two runs or fewer in 13 of his 15 starts. On April 17 he tossed a no-hitter against the Braves, and from May 15 through June 6 he had a franchise-record run of 33 scoreless innings. Assuming he pitches every fifth day, Jimenez will make 34 starts this season. Having won 86.7% of his outings through Sunday, he was on pace for 29 victories, which would be the highest total since the Tigers' Denny McLain won 31 in 1968. Even coming close to that would be an astonishing feat, given that Jimenez pitches in an era of bandbox ballparks—the Rockies' Coors Field is the most hitter-friendly park in baseball history—shrinking strike zones and lineups that are deeper and more patient than ever.
A 31--28 career pitcher with no All-Star appearances entering this season, Jimenez seems to have emerged out of thin air. The Rockies, though, have long been waiting for his breakout. "Even going back to the minors, I can't tell you how many times a guy would get to second, and all he'd want to do is talk about how filthy Ubaldo is," says second baseman Clint Barmes, who rose through the Colorado system with Jimenez. "He has always had the weapons. It was just a question of when he was going to harness them."
Typically, a catcher has five or six signs he can flash to his pitcher. "For Ubaldo, there are 12," says Miguel Olivo, who signed with Colorado last winter and has caught all of Jimenez's starts. "I needed all of spring training to learn them." This spring, when Jimenez began playing around with a cut fastball, Olivo and Apodaca had to get creative. The catcher's sign for the cutter? His middle finger.
Jimenez's best pitch, a two-seam fastball, is widely regarded as the best in the game, better than Lincecum's changeup and Mariano Rivera's cutter. Last year Jimenez's fastball averaged 96.1 mph, the highest since Baseball Info Solutions began tracking velocities eight years ago. This year it's up to 96.4 mph. "It's hard enough to catch up to that," says Colorado first baseman Todd Helton, "but it's the movement he gets that's making him unhittable. When guys get to first base, I ask them what it's like to face that kind of heat. This year everyone is saying how much the ball is moving."
Jimenez's childhood hero was fellow Dominican Pedro Martinez, and though Jimenez is built nothing like the three-time Cy Young winner (Martinez was slight and less than six feet tall) there are similarities between the two. Jimenez, like Martinez in his prime, is lean and as loose and flexible as a gymnast. Like his idol, Jimenez has long, spindly fingers, which helps explain why he gets so much late action on his pitches. He grips the ball deep in his hand, allowing his fingers to maintain contact with the seams longer than most pitchers do. The result is a tighter, more violent spin on the ball—and exaggerated movement. Jimenez further generates velocity with an unorthodox delivery, one "you wouldn't teach any kid," says Rolando Fernandez, the Rockies scout who signed him as a 17-year-old in the Dominican in 2001. Jimenez pulls his right arm back farther than any other pitcher in baseball, seeming to pause with the arm outstretched before he windmills forward. "He gets tremendous speed on his arm action," says Fernandez, who likens it to a slingshot.
The difference for Jimenez this year, according to Apodaca, has been "trimming the fat off the delivery. Now, there's no more needless movement. He's so much more consistent."
Helton adds, "We all know that every time he takes the mound, Ubaldo has a chance to throw a no-hitter. He can make mistakes and still throw one." Indeed, Jimenez was far from his best when he tossed the first no-hitter in Rockies history, in April. During the game he felt so lethargic that fellow starter Jorge de la Rosa handed him a can of Red Bull and an ammonia capsule in the dugout. After he walked five Atlanta batters over the first four innings, Apodaca persuaded his starter to work only out of the stretch. Jimenez retired the next 15 batters.