CLEVELAND — Through his one-plus season in Cleveland and the first half of this year, right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez was as manager Terry Francona put it — the butt of jokes.
Few are laughing at Jimenez now — certainly none of the hitters that faced the right-hander over one of the most dominant second-half performances ever seen by an Indians pitcher.
Jimenez, who endured multiple struggles throughout his tenure in Cleveland, has found his groove — and some redemption — since the All-Star break, posting a 1.80 ERA in 13 starts, which was the second-lowest ERA in the majors to the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw.
“I feel really proud because I never gave up,” said Jimenez, who is 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA in 32 starts. “Even after last year, that tough year, I never put my head down. I always came to the stadium to work hard every day, hoping that things were going to change, and they changed.”
“He’s been great,” general manager Chris Antonetti said of Jimenez. “It’s really hard to overstate what he’s meant to us in the second half.”
The culmination of Jimenez’s brilliant second half of work arrived in the regular-season finale Sunday at Minnesota, when he pitched Cleveland into homefield advantage for tonight’s one-game wild-card playoff.
“It’s like a dream come true,” said Jimenez, who allowed just a run on five hits, while matching a career-high with 13 strikeouts over 6⅔ innings of a 5-1 win over the Twins. “It was a perfect moment. Everything I went through last year …”
“I don’t think I can put into words exactly what he’s been able to do,” pitching coach Mickey Callaway said of Jimenez. “I don’t know what you say. Tremendous.”
General manager Chris Antonetti was encouraged by a workout from center fielder Michael Bourn, who left Sunday’s game after injuring his left leg on a stolen base attempt and was questionable for tonight’s wild-card game.
Bourn is experiencing soreness behind his left knee, but will likely be in the lineup at the top of the batting order tonight.
* Jason Giambi (forearm cramp) took batting practice Tuesday and is expected to be available off the bench tonight.
The Indians must submit their one-game 25-man wild-card roster by 10 a.m. today.
Antonetti said Tuesday that the team has “worked through most of it.”
“There were a number of tough decisions,” he said. “There were a lot of guys deserving of being on the roster.”
Cleveland is expected to go with nine pitchers in its bullpen. Though Antonetti would not confirm, deposed closer Chris Perez is not expected to be on the list.
Francona reiterated that he would not designate a closer for the wild-card game, but it sounds as though right-hander Justin Masterson could be on the mound in the ninth inning should a save opportunity arise.
“It might depend on how we get there,” Francona said. “When Masty got healthy, we acquired a guy that can pitch out of the bullpen multiple innings. We went from feeling like we lost one of our key guys to gaining a huge weapon. And that’s the way we kind of plan on using him.”
Francona said it was not unsettling to be without set roles in his postseason bullpen.
“Think about it. We have the guy that we sent to the All-Star Game available to pitch late in the game,” he said. “It’s actually probably a luxury, because we’re not tied to any inning.”
Masterson spent most of the year as Cleveland’s No. 1 starter before sustaining an oblique injury that nearly ended his season.
“I’m just happy to be back pitching again,” Masterson said. “To have the opportunity to be out of the bullpen is fun. It’s been good so far. The side’s been great. The arm’s holding up.
“I think for Tito to have a little something up your sleeve that hopefully will be successful ... it’s only good if it works.”
Though the Indians spent most of the season near the bottom of the majors in attendance, the wild-card game is sold out, and Cleveland’s players are expecting a raucous environment.
“This place, I expect it to be rocking and rolling ’cause I know that’s exactly what
it will be,” first baseman Nick Swisher said. “Regardless of what anybody said about our fans, our faithful have been there all the time. They’re great people, blue-collar people. To be able to give them something like this, it’s so exciting as a player.”
The Indians played well at Progressive Field, posting the third-best home record (51-30) in the American League.
“This is something we wanted,” reliever Joe Smith said. “We wanted to play here. We didn’t want to go anywhere else. The way the crowd was the past few days here, when you hear about how it was here in the 90s or in 2007 when we went to the postseason, it’s going to be rocking. It’s already sold out, so we’re expecting a loud atmosphere.
It’s going to be a lot of fun.”