Moving Jimenez to the stretch pays off
With pitch count rising, pitching coach Apodaca suggests switch
ATLANTA -- Before the Rockies' coaching staff turned its attention to the zero under the Braves' hits column on the scoreboard Saturday night, it was keenly aware of the climbing pitch total for Ubaldo Jimenez.
Jimenez had 83 pitches through five innings, and six walks at the time, with leadoff walks in the third, fourth and fifth innings. In the latter two innings, those walks came on four pitches. The bullpen was stressed during Friday night's 9-5 loss. And the way the Braves weren't getting good swings on Jimenez, anyone else on the mound would have handed the Braves momentum.
"If I have to replace this, what am I going to replace it with?" manager Jim Tracy said.
But because of sound thinking from Jimenez and those in the dugout, the question never had to be answered. Jimenez righted himself to retire the last 15 hitters to complete the first no-hitter in Rockies history in a 4-0 victory.
Pitching coach Bob Apodaca and bench coach Tom Runnells joined Tracy in his concern over the pace at which his pitch count was rising.
"In the fourth inning, I was talking to 'Dac,' and Jimmy was mentioning to me, 'This guy's got a no-hitter, but his pitch count is getting up there," Runnells said. "I said, 'It would be terrible if we got to a point where we've got to make a decision.' We had talked about that before, taking a guy out when he's got a no-hitter."
At the time, though, the Rockies were more concerned with holding a 4-0 lead. It was after the fifth-inning leadoff walk that Apodaca mentioned the idea that saved the game and set up Jimenez for history.
At the start of innings, Jimenez, like every starting pitcher, was throwing with a full windup. Throughout his career, Jimenez has been far more effective from the windup than from the stretch, the side-to-the-plate stance pitchers use with men on base. But Saturday, he was more effective from the stretch. That meant less of a leg kick and, on Saturday, more control of his body.
"I talked to him between innings and he said he just felt lost," Apodaca said. "To me, it was night and day the way he was executing pitches. His timing, as far as getting the ball out of his glove, and his delivery to the plate were all sharper out of the stretch.
"To me, that was an easy suggestion for him. That was all he needed to hear."
Several key defensive plays -- Miguel Olivo picking off a runner at second base in the third inning, one super catch and another darn good one from Dexter Fowler in the seventh -- helped Jimenez. Not that it made things less nerve-wracking in the dugout.
"I think he's going to continue to get better, too," Tracy said. "The one thing I hope he gets better at is he just does it with, like, two walks, so I don't have to sit here and answer all the questions as to how far you're going to go with the pitch count."
It's not as if it's happened often, even for those in charge.
Tracy was the Montreal Expos' bench coach on June 3, 1995, when Pedro Martinez took a perfect game into the 10th inning at San Diego. But the Padres' Bip Roberts doubled in the 10th, and the Expos lost, 1-0.
"I can still see that double going over [Expos right fielder] Tony Tarasco's head," Tracy said Sunday.
The lone no-hitter Apodaca was a part of in pro ball was on May 17, 1992, while with Triple-A Tidewater. David Telgheder, who went on to pitch in the Majors with the Mets and the Athletics, shut down Mo Vaughn-led Pawtucket.
Interestingly, the souvenirs Apodaca will take from Jimenez's performance are ones no one else can hold. Part of it is the feeling that Jimenez and Olivo were on the same page. He'll also hang onto the interaction with Jimenez.
"Just the looks he gives you, the smiles he gives you," Apodaca said. "When he's at his lowest point early in the ballgame, he's very dejected. And you can talk to him later and have him reflect on those moments. You're just a pitch away, an inning away from having it all come back. This game is so fickle. Great things can happen trough stick-to-it-tiveness.
"Sure, it's a special moment when you see that last ground ball being hit to our most sure-handed guy in our infield [second baseman Clint Barmes], but it's those personal moments you have with him."
Runnells was part of an odd one while managing Triple-A Colorado Springs on May 10, 2008. Current Rockies closer Franklin Morales started the game and was on a strict pitch count. Morales walked five and even gave up a run on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly in five innings. Chris George, current Rockies reliever Matt Daley and Steven Register finished the no-hit, 5-1 victory over Albuquerque.
Wrapped up in the game, Runnells lost track of another reason the game was special -- the fact it was occurring on his 55th birthday.
But he looked at FSN Rocky Mountain reporter Alanna Rizzo, stationed near the dugout and preparing for postgame interviews, and full realized what the moment meant.
"I saw her in the ninth inning and she was giving the 'Hail Mary' sign. I was like, 'Isn't that something; we're all feeling the same way. She's praying to God that he's going to make it through this inning.'
"I saw that and said, 'This would be one heck of a birthday present.'"
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.