The seed was planted more than a year ago, during the World Baseball Classic. Catcher Miguel Olivo(notes) told his Dominican Republic teammate, the uber-talented Ubaldo Jimenez(notes), that a no-hitter was in his future. Olivo signed as a free agent with the Colorado Rockies last winter and again wears the same uniform as Jimenez, whose electric fastball and devastating breaking ball make him one of baseball's most promising young pitchers.
"Someday you're going to throw a no-hitter," Olivo told Jimenez after catching a bullpen session in February.
"Someday, I'm telling you, a no-hitter," Olivo told Jimenez after catching a three-inning stint in March.
Sometimes, someday never comes. For Jimenez, someday was Saturday. And Olivo was behind the plate.
Jimenez pitched the first no-hitter in the 18-year history of the Rockies, a 4-0 victory over the host Atlanta Braves. The right-hander, 26, walked six – all in the first five innings – and threw 128 pitches, but he had plenty of gas to get through the game, hitting 100 mph several times in the second inning and 98 mph against the last batter he faced, Brian McCann(notes).
Jimenez needed only one defensive gem, a sprawling catch by center fielder Dexter Fowler(notes) on a line drive to left-center by Troy Glaus(notes) for the first out in the seventh inning. Fowler sprinted about 30 yards, dived and gloved the ball just before it hit the ground. Jimenez mouthed, "Wow," and upon reaching the dugout after the inning realized he was on the verge of making Olivo a prophet.
"I was like, 'Whoa, there's only two innings left, I have a chance to do this,' " Jimenez said.
The Braves went meekly in the eighth, but the ninth brought to the plate red-hot Martin Prado(notes) (who entered the game batting .463), wily veteran Chipper Jones(notes) and McCann (who came in batting .346). "Oh my God, Chipper and McCann," Jimenez said. "They're two of the best hitters in the league. Why did it have to be those guys? Can't they give me a break or something?"
He didn't need it, not with his fastball still hopping and his breaking ball still dipping. Prado and Jones popped up and McCann hit a routine grounder to second baseman Clint Barmes(notes), who tossed to first baseman Todd Helton(notes) for the final out. Jimenez had jogged nearly to first base, so Helton had to dash only a few steps to envelop the grinning pitcher in a celebratory hug.
"What can I say? It's an unbelievable feeling," Jimenez said.
No-hitters aren't as rare as they seem. This was the 47th since 1990, the most recent being Mark Buehrle's(notes) perfect game for the White Sox last July. This wasn't even the first no-hitter by a Jimenez, that distinction taken by the long forgotten Jose Jimenez of the Cardinals in 1999.
But as no-no's go, this wasn't a fluke by a journeyman pitcher (see: Bud Smith, Cardinals vs. Padres, Sept. 3, 2001) or a late-season performance against a dispirited opponent (see: Clay Buchholz(notes), Red Sox vs. Orioles, Sept. 1, 2007). Ubaldo Jimenez is 3-0 with a 1.29 ERA and on the verge of greatness, not out of place in a conversation that includes Tim Lincecum(notes), Felix Hernandez(notes), Justin Verlander(notes), Jon Lester(notes) and a few other standouts in their mid-20s.
"His stuff is dominant," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said of the pitcher he calls Chief. "At times, it's flat-out dominant."
Occasionally Jimenez struggles with command, and while he was effectively wild early against the Braves, his elevated pitch count had Tracy thinking he'd go to the bullpen if the number in the hits column changed from zero. But on the advice of pitching coach Bob Apodaca, Jimenez began pitching exclusively from the stretch in the sixth and no Brave reached base thereafter.
"[Apodaca] just came to me and was like, 'You've been throwing good from the stretch, why don't you just give it a try?' " Jimenez said.
Catcher Miguel Olivo tells teammate Ubaldo Jimenez (above) that the pitcher will win a Cy Young Award.
Meanwhile, Tracy was fidgeting on the bench as the pitch count climbed. After the Yankees' CC Sabathia(notes) didn't give up a hit to the Rays for 7 2/3 innings a week ago, manager Joe Girardi said he would have pulled him after eighth inning because he'd thrown 111 pitches. Tracy had a similar thought but remembered Jimenez reached 115 pitches in his last start and threw more pitches last season than anybody in baseball except Adam Wainwright(notes). He's strong and resilient.
"You can't run the risk of jeopardizing a young man's career," Tracy said. "But he wasn't in danger."
Jimenez isn't a mindless thrower, either. He was on a career path to become a doctor in the Dominican Republic before signing with the Rockies in 2001. He pitched in the World Series in 2007 and has had the best velocity in the big leagues the last two years, averaging 94.8 mph with his fastball in 2008 and 96.1 in 2009.
No wonder Olivo is so high on him. No wonder the catcher's predictions included a no-hitter. What's next for Jimenez?
"I tell him, 'You're going to win the Cy Young,' " Olivo said. "He's putting everything together."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.