For the Cleveland Indians to make a run toward the AL Central title, they need Ubaldo Jimenez to start living up to expectations and pitch like a staff ace.
At the moment, the team is fortunate to have him pitching at all.
Jimenez, who is appealing a suspension from spring training, is scheduled to take the mound Saturday afternoon as the Indians continue their series with the Toronto Blue Jays after a well-deserved off day following the longest opener in major league history.
Jimenez started the last two openers for Colorado, but Cleveland manager Manny Acta gave the ball to Justin Masterson on Thursday over the former All-Star, who was acquired for four prospects at last season's trade deadline.
That appeared to be a good decision, as Masterson limited a potent Blue Jays lineup to a run and two hits over eight innings. The Indians entered the ninth leading 4-1 but 2011 All-Star closer Chris Perez couldn't finish it out and Toronto rallied for three.
The game remained tied until the top of the 16th, when Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia hit a three-run homer off reliever Jairo Asencio to send Toronto to a 7-4 win.
"If tonight is any kind of insight into this season, strap in,'' Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "We're in for a long ride.''
The 16-inning marathon was the longest of 1,360 opening-day games played since 1901.
"No position player wants to be out there for 16 innings on opening day," Perez said. "I feel terrible."
While Perez is disgusted, Jimenez feels no remorse for hitting Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and leaving the mound to charge his former teammate during a spring training game Sunday. The right-hander was suspended for five games Monday and decided to appeal it a day later.
He is still able to pitch, and the Indians hope he can regain some of the dominance he possessed two year ago.
In 2010, Jimenez was 15-1 for Colorado at the All-Star break and was the NL starter for the Midsummer Classic. He has gone 14-20 since, and was 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts after arriving in Cleveland.
Jimenez did little this spring to show signs of recapturing his old form. In seven Cactus League starts, he had as many walks as strikeouts - 15 - and allowed 24 runs and 30 hits in 23 innings.
"Spring training is done," Jimenez told the Indians' official website. "I'm only worrying about this season. Everything is in the past for me."
In his lone career start against the Blue Jays on June 11, 2010, Jimenez allowed three runs, five hits and five walks in six innings of a rain-shortened, complete-game victory for the Rockies.
While Jimenez struggled mightily in the spring, Toronto scheduled starter Brandon Morrow was sensational.
In five Grapefruit League starts, Morrow allowed one run in 17 1-3 innings. He gave up 10 hits and three walks while striking out 12.
The right-hander is coming off a 2011 season in which he went 11-11 with a 4.72 ERA in 30 starts with 203 strikeouts. His 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings ranked second-best in baseball.
He whiffed 17 over 13 innings in his two outings against the Indians last year, but went 0-1 with a 6.23 ERA.
Farrell is hopeful Morrow can go deep into Saturday's game after Toronto used all seven of its relievers to pitch 11 innings in the opener.
Jose Bautista went 3 for 4 with a homer and a sacrifice fly in the opener, and is batting .452 with four home runs, eight walks and 11 RBIs in eight games against the Indians since the start of last season.
The league's reigning home run champ is hitless with four strikeouts in nine career at-bats against Jimenez, however.