Ubaldo swift to meet Livan soft

Of the 71 fastballs Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) threw during the wildest no-hitter since A.J. Burnett’s(notes) nine-walk special in 2001, only 40 went for strikes. Though it would seem incongruous with the sort of dominance that shuts down a team for nine innings – especially one with the bats of the Atlanta Braves – it actually encapsulates what makes Jimenez so difficult to hit.

At times, the 26-year-old’s fastball moves too much even for him to solve it. To expect the same of the opposition is unfair, and by the time Jimenez harnessed it in the sixth inning Saturday evening, the Braves might as well have retired to the showers.

Ubaldo Jimenez, center, celebrates with Rockies' teammates after throwing a no-hitter against the Braves on Saturday.
(AP Photo/Gregory Smith)

“Guys come down to first base, and they wonder how his ball moves so much,” Rockies first baseman Todd Helton(notes) said during spring training. “When you throw that hard, it’s usually straight. I don’t know how he does it. I just know he gets a lot of bad swings.”

Twelve of them didn’t touch any cowhide, and the rest sent feeble balls toward the Rockies’ fielders. The final one, a groundout to second base, capped the best day of Jimenez’s career, the first no-hitter in Colorado Rockies history and a capstone moment for the right-hander. Even on a day that included an epic 20-inning game between the Cardinals and Mets with managerial bungles worthy of Enron and Tyco, he found himself at the center of the baseball world thanks to …

1. That dynamic fastball. Here’s the thing about Ubaldo Jimenez: He’s got a good changeup (he threw 32 in the no-hitter) and a plus slider (16 of those), and neither comes close to matching his fastball.

Jimenez loves his fastball, as he ought. For two years running, it’s been the hardest pitch in baseball, and this year is no different: Over three starts, he is sitting at 96.5 mph, harder than he’s ever thrown. And it’s not a typical 100-mph flirter, either. Fastballs that hard generally straighten out. Jimenez’s dips, dives, dodges, dances and sometimes destroys his catcher, Miguel Olivo(notes).

“It comes fast,” Olivo said. “You can feel it, too. Your hand, the rest of your body, the way you need to catch the ball. You need to get ready earlier.”

Jimenez likes to establish the fastball early in games. He started the Braves with eight among his first nine pitches. He never found his command out of the windup, throwing only 21 of 46 pitches for strikes through the fifth inning. Once Jimenez went to the stretch, 19 of his 25 fastballs went for strikes, and as he was hitting 98 mph in the ninth inning, the Braves were only wishing …

2. They could’ve been facing, say, an 84.2-mph fastball. That’s how hard – or soft – Washington Nationals right-hander Livan Hernandez(notes) throws these days. The only slower fastballs in the major leagues come from Tim Wakefield(notes), a knuckleballer, and Jamie Moyer(notes), a senior citizen. And yet Hernandez sports an ERA better than Wakefield, Moyer, Jimenez and every other starter in baseball.

It’s among the only numbers accurately pegged to Hernandez: 0.00. What’s his age? Listed at 35, probably higher. What’s his weight? Listed at 245, definitely higher. The ERA is undeniable, though, following a four-hit shutout Saturday in which he junkballed around a Milwaukee Brewers team that …

3. The next day dropped 10 runs in the first inning, seven of which went on the docket of Jason Marquis(notes). Take Hernandez, put him in a funhouse mirror and there appears Marquis, who has rewarded the Nationals’ two-year, $15 million investment with 8 1/3 innings of just about the worst pitching possible over three starts.

Marquis’ line Sunday took the cake, along with the cookies, brownies, cheesecake and all other fattening delectables. He faced seven batters. He gave up four hits. He plunked two batters. He walked one. All of them scored. He didn’t manage an out. Seven earned runs, plumping an already-robust ERA to 20.52. To get back to a 9.00 ERA, Marquis needs to throw 10 2/3 scoreless innings. To drop it to his career average entering the season, 4.48, Marquis needs 29 2/3 scoreless.

The Nationals brought in Marquis as the veteran who was supposed to stabilize the rotation. The deal seemed ill-conceived at the time, paying beaucoup bucks for a replacement-level innings eater. One who, remember, is a first-half pitcher – his ERA is more than half a point lower before the All-Star break – and whose second-half meltdowns led to …

4. Tony La Russa dropping him from the postseason roster in Marquis’ final year in St. Louis. Though, hey, at least Marquis can take solace in the fact that his ineptitude Sunday was matched part and parcel by La Russa’s on Saturday.

OK, so that may be a little harsh. La Russa and his counterpart in the 20-inning folly, Mets manager Jerry Manuel, split the dunce cap. The particulars are covered well here. It’s best to purge the fecklessness from our collective memory – may Joe Mather(notes) never, ever pitch again – and move on to something that may extend further than one night …

5. And into a season of ugliness: A.J. Pierzynski(notes) or Alexei Ramirez(notes) or Carlos Quentin(notes) or Juan Pierre(notes) or Mark Kotsay(notes) or, really, any of the Chicago White Sox’s hitters. When a team’s best offensive contributions have come from Andruw Jones(notes), that is trouble.

Chicago is 4-9 and in last place despite a 3.89 ERA thanks to offensive troubles that have manager Ozzie Guillen sticking up for hitting coach Greg Walker with a torrent of F-bombs, which, soon enough …

6. The fans at Yankee Stadium may shower on Mark Teixeira(notes), who has been replaced by the ghost of Tino Martinez, circa ’96. Now, this isn’t exactly a similar situation. That was Martinez’s first year, and he was replacing a legend in Don Mattingly, and his struggles were not nearly as bad as Teixeira’s thus far.

He finally hit a home run Sunday, which raised his slugging percentage to .205, just three points behind Pierre. Only 109 more points to catch …

David Ortiz is batting .171 for the Red Sox this season.
(Elsa/Getty Images)

7. David Ortiz(notes), who announced that after hitting four doubles in his last 17 at-bats, “some explosions are coming.” Whether this is over-the-hill bluster or legitimate armaments remains to be seen, though feel free to sprinkle those grains of salt, seeing as three of those doubles came off Carl Pavano(notes), rookie Alex Burnett(notes) and Grant Balfour(notes), who has lost 3 mph on his fastball of two years ago.

Ortiz’s struggles mirror those of the Red Sox, whose 4-8 start is particularly troublesome compared with New York and Tampa Bay going 9-3 in their first 12 games. Yes, it’s only two weeks, and anyone trying to write off a team should hope the pen is out of ink, but knowing that the Yankees and Rays are this good …

8. And that Tampa might soon be able to call Matt Garza(notes) a legitimate ace is frightening. Garza shut down the Red Sox over eight innings Sunday, lowering his ERA to an American League-best 0.75 and winning his third game while Boston’s co-ace, Jon Lester(notes), dropped to 0-2 and saw his ERA balloon to 8.44.

Even though Boston is among the worst-scoring teams in the AL and Garza’s other two starts came against the worst, Baltimore, he has thrown eight innings in all three games, his 24 matched only by Adam Wainwright(notes) and Roy Halladay(notes), whose excellence in the National League is exceeded only by …

9. Tim Lincecum(notes). Yeah, that guy again. Two straight Cy Youngs. Primed to win a third. Leads the major leagues with 24 strikeouts in 20 innings and ranks sixth with an 0.90 ERA, just behind the surprise he faces in one of the week’s 10 best pitching matchups, a new 10 Degrees feature:

10) James Shields(notes) vs. Jake Peavy(notes), Thursday
9) David Price(notes) vs. John Danks(notes), Tuesday
8) J.A. Happ(notes) vs. Tim Hudson(notes), Wednesday
7) Matt Harrison(notes) vs. Josh Beckett(notes), Wednesday
6) Fausto Carmona(notes) vs. Brett Anderson(notes), Saturday
5) CC Sabathia(notes) vs. Dallas Braden(notes), Thursday
4) Jaime Garcia(notes) vs. Tim Lincecum, Friday
3) Brian Matusz(notes) vs. John Lackey(notes): Saturday
2) Roy Halladay vs. Derek Lowe(notes): Thursday
1) Livan Hernandez vs. …

10. Ubaldo Jimenez, Thursday. Not bad, huh? Hardest thrower vs. softest. Skinny vs. lumpy. Young vs. old. Jimenez followed his no-hitter by running six miles the next morning. Hernandez followed his shutout by unequivocally not running six miles.

Such matchups make baseball so great and unique. In no other sport can two athletes – loosely interpreted, in Livan’s case – be so dissimilar in size, shape and style, and still arrive at the same point, with utter mastery of an opponent. One hundred mph, 84 mph – it doesn’t matter. Not as long as bats aren’t squaring up on cowhide.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Apr 19, 2010