WASHINGTON, D.C. — By late afternoon on Monday, it had yet to sink in.
Joe Jimenez sat by alone behind a small table, answering the same questions over and over again from baseball reporters around the world, and the most anonymous of this year’s All-Stars didn’t have an answer.
“I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said.
How, after struggling so mightily his rookie season, was he among the best baseball players in the world, with a star on his right sleeve that signified that he, too, was now one of them?
All the Detroit Tigers’ young reliever could do was laugh. Because beyond that shy laughter, he surely knew the answer: He’s supposed to be here.
At this time last season, Jimenez was pitching at Triple-A Toledo. The first half of his dreadful debut year was in the rearview mirror and he was back to dominating the minor leagues. More struggles came and they were tough — he posted a 12.32 ERA in 24 appearances last season — and before the final game of the season in Minnesota, sounding embarrassed over his performance, shell-shocked at the way he was getting rocked, he vowed things would be different next season.
“I tried to forget about it as soon as I could,” he said. “I tried to forget the bad moments because I didn’t struggle a lot in the minor leagues, so I just tried to forget about it and move forward every day in the off-season with a purpose and new goals.”
One of those goals? Making the All-Star team this season.
But in order to get here, Jimenez had to push himself out of his comfort zone. It began with a trip to Los Angeles immediately after the season, a place he didn’t know anybody, where he visited a sports performance facility. There, the seeds of an arduous off-season were planted, which then sprouted in Lakeland, Fla., where his star was born two seasons ago when he posted a perfect 0.00 ERA in 17 appearances.
It was then when Jimenez was tagged as the Tigers’ closer of the future, a designation that has never been more evident than this season. Privately, the Tigers front office had seen in Jimenez’s winter commitment what they never did with their last closer of the future, Bruce Rondon, whose mentality couldn’t match up.
The team’s new coaching staff watched with wide eyes when Jimenez took the mound in spring training. He dropped more than 20 pounds, he made the adjustments the front office had asked him to, and it was a credit to that work ethic that soon into the season, manager Ron Gardenhire tasked him with getting big outs in the back-end of the bullpen.
Oftentimes with young players as talented as Jimenez, it’s just a matter of time before things click. To him, things clicked during the second weekend of the season in Chicago.
“I was feeling the way that I was feeling in the minor leagues,” he said. “I just throw it and it doesn’t matter how, I just get outs. That’s the way that I felt starting the season.”
For all of his physical gifts, with relief pitchers, the great separator is mentality of knowing opponents can’t touch him. That is what will have him saving baseball games for the Tigers for what they hope is a long time.
He doesn’t talk about the closer of the future tag because he has too much respect for Shane Greene, but he smiles when asked about it, because those goals — like making the All-Star team — revolve around being trusted with the biggest outs of the game. While Greene was on the disabled list recently, Jimenez took those reins. He blew one, sure, but the best do. And if Greene is traded in the future, the job will be Jimenez’s.
“I just got a taste of it,” he said. “Obviously I was closing in the minor leagues so I kind of know how to prepare for it and in the big leagues, it’s a little tougher. But I liked it the few days that I was the closer and I’m just looking forward to having more of those in a few years or whatever.”
This season, Jimenez has showed closer-like numbers, posting a 2.72 ERA and 1.09 WHIP with 48 strikeouts in 43 innings.
On Monday, he got the taste of what could be the first of many All-Star appearances. He didn’t know many of his teammates, but tagged along Twins right-hander Jose Berrios during batting practice before the Home Run Derby. He talked with Yadier Molina, who caught for him in last year’s World Baseball Classic. He couldn’t wait for his family to arrive in the evening.
But of all the goals he talks about, the biggest, to him, is winning. And at a time in which the Tigers are among the worst teams in baseball, it speaks volumes to hear a player as young as Jimenez — one who could be with the team through their rebuilding process — mention the ultimate goal.
“At the start of this year, I told all of these guys that I want to win a World Series,” he said. “I’m not going to stop here. I wanted to be here, but I want to win a World Series more. We are going to do great things.”
Jimenez has already begun doing those things.
He came up to the big leagues last year, got his confidence knocked around the yard, and now he’s in the All-Star game. At first, he talked to the media through a team translator. But on Monday, he fielded those identical questions by himself.
“There you go,” his agent said when he finished. “First one down.”
The first of many.
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