SAN DIEGO -- On one of the strangest nights of the summer, Ubaldo Jimenez hugged Colorado manager Jim Tracy on the dugout steps after the first inning and then headed toward one of the strangest feel-good baseball stories in the land.
The one-time Rockies' ace is now Cleveland's hope for tomorrow ... and next month ... and, especially, this October and beyond.
On what became an utterly bizarre evening as the Indians announced themselves as serious players not for next year, but for right now, Jimenez pitched the first inning for Colorado after everybody knew Cleveland had out-bid the Yankees and the Red Sox and had a deal in place.
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Cleveland stuns the baseball world with deal for Jimenez. Read >>
Yes, repeat that. The best pitcher on the market did not go to the Yankees. He did not go to the Red Sox.
You could almost feel a standing ovation from the rest of the baseball universe.
"It was really tough," said Jimenez, 27, of being traded.
C'est La vie. By night's end, Jimenez had traded up 9 ½ games in the standings and improved eight games on his team's won-loss record.
Cleveland arrived in the upper reaches of the AL Central this summer a year ahead of schedule and, as they say, is all in with this move. Credit the Indians for swinging for the fences. And in Jimenez, Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin (and Fausto Carmona, if he ever straightens up), they have a fighting chance to seize the division from Detroit.
Moreover, with Jimenez signed through 2013 and kids like Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis blossoming, the Indians have just cracked open their window of opportunity even further for the next several seasons.
"They're in a really good position right now," Jimenez said of the Indians. "They're battling for first place. That's what you want.
"It's not easy to get traded, but if you get traded, you want to go to a team like that."
|In a strange series of events, Ubaldo Jimenez gets traded to the Indians after hurling one last inning in a Rockies uniform. (Getty Images)|
"I don't know much about the city," he said. "I didn't walk around. I walked straight from the hotel to the stadium. But I know the weather is really nice."
He knows Carmona and Rafael Perez, the lefty reliever.
He knows what he had in Colorado, with whom he broke in at 22 in 2006, was very special.
"The only thing I can say is, 'Thank you'," he said.
And a special thank you to Tracy, who stopped Jimenez on the dugout steps as he was removing him following the strange first inning Saturday, grasped the big right-hander's shoulders firmly with both hands, and thanked him for all he had done for the Rockies.
"Jim Tracy was the one who gave me an opportunity," Jimenez said. "He made me who I am today. When he got to be the manager, the first thing he did was take me into his office and tell me, 'I'm going to leave you in to win or lose the game.'
"I love him like a father."
That's all lovely, but the key phrase in there is the "who I am today" part.
Who, exactly, is Cleveland getting?
The Jimenez who fired a no-hitter against Atlanta last summer while going 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA in 33 starts? The hard-working kid who made sure to get out for his day-after-a-start five-mile run even on the morning after the no-hitter?
Or the 2011 disappointment who is 6-9 with a 4.20 ERA? And the guy who's average fastball velocity is down roughly three miles an hour from past years?
"He made some mistakes as far as his off-season program last winter," Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca said the other day. "He logged a lot of innings last year and he was trying to find a way to rest in the off-season. He went away from his normal offseason program. I'm sure he's not going to make that mistake again.
"Usually, in spring training, he's ready to go three innings on Day One. And he throws a lot of batting practice and throws a lot to catchers.
"I don't think he did much of that this spring."
Part of that was because, as he tried to make up for lost time, Jimenez tore the cuticle on a thumbnail this spring and that set him back. Though he tried to pitch through it, Jimenez said, he couldn't straighten his arm as much as usual on his release because of the thumb.
Then he tweaked his groin and didn't tell the Rockies until two months into the season.
Not the most efficient way to go about things. But in the wrong way, Jimenez reinforced his reputation as a hard-worker, a gamer, a pitcher with heart. The want-to is there.
Apodaca says that over the past two months -- Jimenez was 6-4 with a 3.03 ERA since June 1 before Saturday's one-inning debacle -- he's seen a "renewed energy" in Jimenez.
"I think he feels more fit now," Apodaca said. "His side work is much more upbeat. He's much more aggressive."
Apodaca also makes this great point about Jimenez: "There are going to be times when it's not there, and that's what pitching in Denver does to you. When you pitch your career there, it does some things and it takes awhile to get back to being yourself.
"He does his heaviest and hardest work on the road. We monitor what he does in Denver. We don't let him do as much."
The fact that he's stronger now than earlier in the year, combined with the fact that there will be no more battling the thin mile-high air, could make him really dangerous in Cleveland.
Certainly, much more dangerous than he was in a first inning Saturday during which he allowed four runs, walked four and threw 44 pitches.
But with all that was going on, it's a wonder he could even find his way to the mound. With rumors swirling to the point where Jimenez said he was hearing from Rockies minor leaguers on Facebook that he was about to be traded to Cleveland, he wasn't scratched because, according to sources, the Rockies were trying to wrangle a fourth player from the Indians (they did).
"To tell you the truth, I don't even think my mind was on baseball," Jimenez said. "I knew about the trade before I warmed up. Everybody knew. My teammates, coaches, even guys from the minor leagues called me and said, 'You got traded.'
"You could see, I couldn't throw a strike."
It was bizarre and crazy, a fittingly wacky scenario on the eve of the trade deadline.
And you know what? It could get even more challenging now: Jimenez must now face lineups stacked with designated hitters. No more will he get to face the weak bottom-third of NL lineups.
"That's OK," he said with a big smile. "I don't have to hit anymore, either."
And with that, poof, he was off to Cleveland.