Detroit Tigers’ Joe Jimenez opens up about his struggles: ‘It’s personal for me’

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers reliever Joe Jimenez isn’t running away from his problems.

A former All-Star and closer, Jimenez posted one scoreless inning in Sunday’s loss against the Chicago Cubs. It was his first time not allowing a run since Sept. 27, 2020, a span of 231 days. He felt pleased, looking up at the scoreboard and seeing a zero in the eighth frame.

When the team’s rebuild started in 2017, the Tigers believed Jimenez — who signed in 2013 as an undrafted free agent from the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy — could be a long-term answer at closer, similar to how they viewed outfielder Christin Stewart as a future slugger and righty Beau Burrows as a starting pitcher. (Those first-round draft picks didn’t pan out as expected.)

Jimenez, 26, has a long way to go before the organization trusts him again, either in blowouts or high leverage situations.

“To be honest, it’s on me,” Jimenez said Monday. “I’m trying to prove to myself that I’m able to be here, pitch in the big leagues and be successful. That’s my thinking. I’m not mad. I’m not disappointed or anything. It’s just something personal for me, to prove to myself that I’m able to be here.”

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The past three months have been a whirlwind for Jimenez. The imposing 6-foot-3 right-hander walked into the spring training facility in February with goals of reclaiming his closer’s role. On March 27, five days before Opening Day, the Tigers optioned him to Triple-A Toledo.

“I didn’t expect that was going to happen, to be honest,” Jimenez said. “I mean, yeah, it was frustrating. It got to my head a little bit. That’s in the past and now I’m here. Just going to keep moving forward and trying to do a good job.”

Manager AJ Hinch confirmed the surprise: “I think he was shocked when he got sent down.”

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Jimenez was picked by Toledo manager Tom Prince to pick up the save May 4 on Opening Day against the Nashville Sounds at Fifth Third Field. Hist first pitch: A solo home run. Milwaukee Brewers prospect Jamie Westbrook smacked the ball beyond the left-field wall and into Monroe Street.

He retired the next three batters to preserve the win.

These are the same inconsistencies Jimenez faced in spring training, and throughout his five-year big-league career. He gave up five runs (three earned) with three walks and six strikeouts across 5⅓ innings (5.06 ERA) in six outings in Grapefruit League action. During the 2020 season, he put himself on the hot seat by finishing with a 7.15 ERA in 22⅔ innings, walking six batters and striking out 22.

Jimenez only has 17 major league saves in 28 opportunities across his 187-game resume. He carries the weight of a lifetime 5.99 ERA. He has 204 strikeouts, but his command fluctuates and burdens him with jams he can’t escape. He has 69 walks through 166⅔ innings.

“It’s something that you have to battle every day, every pitch,” Jimenez said. “You don’t want to be a wild guy. You don’t want to go out there and not be able to throw strikes. That’s hard. Here in the big leagues, if you’re a guy that is not throwing strikes, you’re not going to be here.”

Before allowing the home run in Triple-A Toledo, the Tigers gave him an opportunity in the majors. He survived two games — April 15 and April 17 against the Oakland Athletics — before getting sent back down the minor leagues.

The results in Oakland: Two games, five earned runs, zero hits, seven walks and two strikeouts in one inning. The team’s next roster move was required April 21, when right-hander Spencer Turnbull returned from the COVID-19 injured list.

Jimenez admits, “I didn’t do good,” and was too easy of a choice.

“You’re not safe or secure in any position,” Jimenez said. “I didn’t expect to start the year in Triple-A. It was something that never crossed my mind. It’s just like, try not to take anything for granted and keep moving forward.”

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Because of injuries, the Tigers had to look past the home run Jimenez gave up in his season debut for the Mud Hens. Reliever Erasmo Ramirez, one day after being called up from Toledo, went to the injured list May 8.

Lacking a surplus of 40-man options, Jimenez got brought back.

He entered in the eighth inning May 11 with a 7-0 lead over the Kansas City Royals but allowed three runs on two hits and two walks. Jorge Soler crushed a three-run blast. (The Royals would later tie the game in the ninth before the Tigers won on a walk-off single.)

“It was all connected,” Jimenez said. “It’s all one thing. Everything didn’t go the way I wanted to start the year. … It’s just on me. I have to be able to do the work, so I stay here in the big leagues.”

The Tigers waited five days before pitching Jimenez against the Cubs. His scoreless inning dropped his ERA from 43.20 to 27.00. When a roster move was necessary leading up to a three-game series with the Seattle Mariners, Jimenez avoided further disappointment.

Rookie Alex Lange, with a 7.43 ERA in 15 games, got booted to Toledo.

“We did send a different pitcher down,” Hinch said. “I don’t know what his thoughts were, what the expectations were, but we’re providing an opportunity for him. And we hope he takes it.”

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For Jimenez, finding success comes down to two aspects of his game that are intertwined: Throwing strikes and pitching with confidence. Long removed from his All-Star status four seasons ago, Jimenez believes there’s a reality where everything clicks again.

The Tigers also think Jimenez can return to the back end of the bullpen, and his flashes of dominance support that optimism. The organization counted on him as a key part of the future, so evolving into a formidable reliever should boost the team’s chances of success.

“If I have the confidence that I had before, I’m going to be a great pitcher, an All-Star pitcher,” Jimenez said. “I’m just trying to get the confidence back and put everything out there. I know it’s going to turn my way someday soon.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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