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No-hitter first step to vaulting Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez into elite

Before taking the mound last Saturday night in Atlanta for the game that would change his professional life, Colorado pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez felt different, and not in a good way. He was sleepy and sluggish, so much so that Jorge de la Rosa, a fellow member of the Rockies starting rotation, sensed his friend's fatigue and, playing modern-day apothecary, offered a Red Bull and a whiff of ammonia to awaken him from his slumber.

Jimenez had modest expectations that evening: Just get through six, maybe seven, innings, he told himself. Six or seven.

That should have been an attainable goal for a pitcher who has gone at least six innings in 25 consecutive starts, yet for a while it seemed Jimenez might not get that far. He walked six Braves batters and had just three strikeouts through the first five innings, and though he hadn't surrendered a base hit, his lack of control was dangerous in a close game. Jimenez finally seemed to wake up in the sixth. He retired the side in order for the first time, then repeated the feat in the seventh and the eighth innings. In the ninth, he did so again, completing the first no-hitter in Colorado Rockies history with as much power as he had shown all evening by getting All-Star Brian McCann to ground out meekly to second base on a 98 mph fastball, Jimenez's 128th and final pitch of the game.

No one, least of all Jimenez, could have guessed that a night that began with so much uncertainty would end with him being elevated to the forefront of the national baseball discussion for the first time. Those who were just now being made aware of Jimenez's vast skill didn't so much marvel at the feat as wonder: Who is Ubaldo Jimenez?

To the average fan, he is mostly an unknown. To the baseball cognoscenti, he's a fashionable Cy Young darkhorse. But among those who should know best -- opposing hitters -- he's long been a nightmare to face. Jimenez's silencing of a respectable Atlanta offense is a sure sign that he may be close to joining the NL's elite pitchers. With the Rockies playing the vast majority of their games out west, much of the country has slept while Jimenez, 26, has displayed steady growth in his young career. He has increased his wins total and strikeouts while reducing his ERA each of the past two seasons. His no-hitter means that his start Thursday in Washington, D.C. against the Nationals may be the first time that he has had the baseball spotlight almost entirely to himself despite the fact that he's made four postseason starts.

"This will not be his last no-hitter," predicts Mets right fielder Jeff Francoeur. "He might have the best stuff in the league."

Jimenez's whip-like arm powers a fastball that last year had the highest average velocity fastball in the majors, according to Baseball Info Solutions, and the fastest since the company began tracking the information eight years ago. Thus, it's tempting to think Jimenez's story is one of power and dominance on the mound rather than his grit and work off of it.

At 8:45 a.m. last Sunday, Jimenez entered the team's hotel lobby in Atlanta with running shoes on his feet and sweat dripping from his brow, having completed his usual five-to-six mile run following each of his starts. Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca looked incredulously at his ace. He knows Jimenez is a workhorse, having seen him trudge through the Washington, D.C. streets last year in the middle of the summer but now? Hours removed from what is one of the toughest feats in sports? Running?

"He doesn't want to be merely a pitcher who pitches in the big leagues for a long time," says Apodaca. "He wants to be a great pitcher. He knows now what it takes to be a great pitcher and it's not just between the lines. You have to be a great pitcher between starts. All the hard work that it takes to put your body in a position to be great."

Says Jimenez, "Nothing is for free. You have to keep working."

That lesson has been drilled into him since childhood, not so much by words but by deeds and love. Jimenez came from a family of little money but full hearts. His father, Ubaldo Sr., made a vow to his family: We may be poor but my children will not be without shoes or education. Which may be why as the sun rose most mornings over their native Dominican Republic, Ubaldo Sr. would transition from his night job as a security guard to his day job as a chauffeur. His mother, Ramona Garcia de Jimenez, a nurse by trade and a supermarket vendor by financial necessity, insisted that Ubaldo and his sister attend the best English classes they could find. Even though many in the Dominican Republic drop out of school to start working, the Jimenezes would have none of it. Their children would do both. As a 10-year-old, Ubaldo Jr. would mark the prices of items in the supermarket, then fulfill a promise he made to his mother by reading at least five pages a day.

When big league scouts came knocking a few years later with offers of tens of thousands of dollars the family could've badly used, his parents would shoo them away. The scouts wanted to take a teenaged Ubaldo to their teams' baseball academies where they would complete his transition from an outfielder to a professional pitcher. But Jimenez's parents had seen scores of neighborhood children who left school to chase their major league dreams only to wander the streets without a diploma -- or a prayer -- after they'd flamed out and insisted their son get his high school diploma first.

It was a request that Rolando Fernandez had never heard in that country before. Fernandez, Colorado's director of international operations, had made similar arrangements in Venezuela but never in the Dominican Republic. He took a look at the 6-foot-1, 165-pound Jimenez with an 87-89-mph fastball who looked projectable but not necessarily prolific and obliged.

Fernandez arranged Jimenez's workouts around his studies. "We knew he was a very good find," Fernandez says, "but it wasn't until after the first year I knew he was going to be a special kid." While at the Rockies' academy, whatever Fernandez and his staff asked the developing pitcher to do he did. And then some. "He always did extra," says Fernandez.

He still does. At the Hera Gym in Jimenez's hometown of San Cristobal, gym owner Hector "El Pesado" Baez, says there's no off-season for Jimenez, where Baez sees him working out almost every day of the season.

It is his combination of work ethic and intelligence, those close to Jimenez say, that will propel him to a permanent place in baseball's upper echelon. "He's like Pedro [Martinez]," says Rockies pitcher Manuel Corpas. "He knows what he wants to do with his pitches. In two years, you watch, he's going to get even better."

By then everyone will know his name.

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