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Colorado ace Jimenez in rarefied air

Sox starter Jon Lester is framed by plate umpire Tom Hallion (left) and Rockies batter Carlos Gonzalez in the first inning. Sox starter Jon Lester is framed by plate umpire Tom Hallion (left) and Rockies batter Carlos Gonzalez in the first inning. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 23, 2010

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DENVER — Don Baylor was the DH for the Red Sox in 1986 and witnessed first-hand a pitcher with the look of invincibility.

“Roger started out 14-0, and he had that confidence every time he took the ball that nobody was going to hit him,’’ said Baylor, “and as a team, we felt that way when he went out there. It was a pretty special thing.

“So to see something like that again brings back those memories. You always try and compare different players, and right now, what Ubaldo is doing just reminds me of what Roger did that season.

While Roger Clemens, who was 23 at the time, had a 20-strikeout game in April 1986, Ubaldo Jimenez, 26, threw a no-hitter April 17 against the Braves.

Baylor, the Rockies’ hitting coach, has seen an impressive maturity in Jimenez, even since last year’s bad outing against the Phillies in Game 1 of the Division Series when he allowed nine hits and five runs. He did better in Game 4, pitching seven innings and allowing two runs. He’s come even further from his Game 2 World Series start at Fenway in 2007, when he allowed five walks in 4 2/3 innings.

The guy pitching now — 13-1 with a 1.15 ERA entering tonight’s start against the Red Sox — doesn’t resemble that pitcher. In fact, there aren’t many pitchers in baseball history he resembles at the moment.

“It’s been fun,’’ said the soft-spoken native of the Dominican Republic. “I go to a new city and people want to talk to me. I sign autographs and I’m enjoying it.’’

One always wonders whether success is a blessing or a burden. Yesterday, Jimenez was speaking to reporters the day before a start, which is a no-no for many pitchers. In fact, he gave reporters all the time they needed, then left the ballpark because he wasn’t feeling well. There was no word on whether Jimenez would have to miss tonight’s start, but the indications were that he would be all right.

“When I need to work, I take my time and I do my work,’’ said Jimenez, who said he felt a little dizzy. “I have time for everything.’’

He seems to have time for casual conversations, for autographs, for engaging kids, and speaking about old times.

“He’s one of the nicest kids you’ll ever want to meet,’’ said Baylor.

Jimenez remembers his Fenway Park debut in the World Series.

“I remember being in Boston for the first time and I was in the media room, and that was something new with all the reporters everywhere.

“The day I pitched, I was warming up in the bullpen, the fans were going crazy, trying to scare me or something. They were yelling, ‘You’re going to get beat tonight.’ It was wild. It was crazy.’’

Jimenez is as calm as he is good. Jitters do not appear to infiltrate any bone in his body. He lets it fly, so to speak, and it comes out with an explosion you don’t see in many pitchers. While everyone raves about the late life on Stephen Strasburg’s fastball, Jimenez is right there with him.

“He’s developed that cutter,’’ said Baylor. “I mean, he can change speeds on you. It’s hard to pick him up. He’ll throw one fastball 97 and then come back with another one at 92. He’s really fun to watch. Not fun for the hitters.’’

Jimenez said he tries not to look at his stats — as eye-popping as they are — and just tries to “go out there and pitch and do the best I can and try to get the hitters out.’’

And he’s doing that better than anyone.

Like most young pitchers, he was just a thrower when he came up. Now he’s “learning how to pitch.’’

He is able to locate his fastball well and use different speeds. His arm angle and delivery are often tough to pick up, so hitters often find that, before they know it, an incredibly hard fastball is coming at them with no time to react.

“It speaks for itself,’’ said the Red Sox’ Mike Cameron. “His stats tell you he’s probably the best in the game right now.

“You’re not going to see too many guys with that type of stuff and that fastball. And it moves, too. It’s not like you’re up looking at anything straight. That thing moves, darts . . .

“He’s one hell of a pitcher and he’s not fun to face.’’

Sox manager Terry Francona has seen the video, so he knows the Jimenez his team will face tonight is a polished version of the pitcher he saw in 2007. Francona also thinks the Rockies have gotten to the point where playing in Coors Field doesn’t hurt their pitching because they have pitchers who throw hard sinkers and induce ground balls rather than fly balls.

Jimenez, who has struck out 88 batters in 101 1/3 innings, is 5-0 with a 1.85 ERA at Coors. On the road, he is 8-1 with an 0.80 ERA. He’s also unbeaten at night: 6-0, 0.84.

“He’s not Roger Clemens in that he won’t strike out 20, or Nolan Ryan, striking 17 or 18,’’ said Baylor, “but he’ll get you out and he’ll get you out in many different ways.’’

It will be interesting to see how Jimenez fares against Red Sox hitters, who are generally very patient. He may not get as many swings and misses on pitches out of the strike zone as he is used to, and they may be able to get his pitch count up.

This will be Jimenez’s third consecutive interleague start. He has beaten Minnesota and Toronto, both good-hitting teams, but the Sox should be his biggest challenge, even without a DH.

Asked if he has heard about Clemens’s 1986 season from Baylor, Jimenez said, “I saw it on TV. He was 14-0 with a 2-something ERA. He won the Cy Young and the MVP.’’

Does Jimenez allow himself to think about such awards?

“No,’’ he said. “Long way to go. It’s too early to think about that.’’

Everyone else is.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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