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Ubaldo was always happy playing baseball in DR

Ubaldo was always happy playing baseball in DR

Ubaldo was always happy playing baseball in DR

In a nation as baseball-obsessed as the Dominican Republic, it would seem impossible for there to be a boy who played the game so much that others took exception. Growing up in a small, poverty-stricken part of San Cristobal, Ubaldo Jimenez was that boy.

Nothing could keep Jimenez from his favorite activity. The other residents of Hoyo Caliente -- the tiny, uncomfortable neighborhood where Jimenez lived until he signed with the Colorado Rockies as a 17-year-old -- grew annoyed at his constant playing.

"My neighbors went to my mom and were like, 'Oh, this guy, he drives us crazy!'" Jimenez said. "I didn't care what they said. I just played baseball every single day."

Nowadays, it is Jimenez's job to partake in his passion. His latest two outings for the Indians have occurred inside National Hispanic Heritage Month, which began on Sept. 15 and lasts until Oct. 15. Soft-spoken and unassuming, Jimenez might not celebrate his background as loudly as some other Latino players, but he is as proud of where he came from as anyone.

Back when he lived in Hoyo Caliente, Jimenez was surrounded by destitution and crime. His upbringing wasn't the cushiest, but that didn't prevent him from enjoying his early life in the Dominican. Baseball helped matters immensely.

As a kid, Jimenez never thought about making a career out of the game, which he came to through his father. Jimenez played it because he loved it, even though doing so late into the night would result in a beating from his mother, which the pitcher smiles about now, understanding that she just didn't want to see him fall into trouble.

Without bats or balls, Jimenez and his friends used sticks and the shaved heads of dolls, with the latter measure routinely causing rifts with his sister. When there was nowhere on the ground to pick up a game, the young ballplayers would head to nearby rooftops.

"It was dangerous," Jimenez said. "You could kill yourself trying to catch the ball. ... It was really rough, but I mean when you're that young, you only care about having fun."

Jimenez, 29, is nearing the end of his second full season in Cleveland, which acquired him through a high-profile midseason trade with Colorado in 2011. As a member of the Rockies, Jimenez once put together a season worthy of Cy Young Award consideration. With the Indians, he led the Major Leagues in losses in 2012.

But throughout this season, and particularly in the second half, Jimenez seems to have found a way to turn his career around. In doing so, he has reminded Tribe fans why the organization sought him so fervently in the first place.

"We're leaning on him, and I think he's enjoying it," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said after Jimenez pitched on Sept. 19. "Every five days, he's answering the bell."

In 12 starts since the All-Star break, Jimenez's ERA is 1.86, and he has 87 strikeouts against just 26 walks across 77 1/3 innings. He's also kept opponents to a .225 batting average while compiling a 1.16 WHIP in that span.

Jimenez has churned out seven straight quality starts, dating back to Aug. 23. The Indians have won each of the last five games started by Jimenez.

"He's consistent with his stuff," said Francona, who then started to call that development encouraging, but changed course. "That's past encouraging -- that's exciting."

For the Indians, Jimenez's resurgence has been vital. Fellow starters Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister all went down with injuries at various points of the season, and Scott Kazmir and Danny Salazar both have largely been limited in their output for different reasons. But Jimenez has been a reliable option for virtually the entire season.

Since posting a 7.13 ERA in five April outings, the lanky righty -- who could enter free agency after this season -- has pitched to the tune of a 2.78 ERA.

"He's gotten himself to the point where we're trying to line up days so he can pitch," Francona said. "That's pretty impressive on his part."

With Cleveland seeking its first playoff appearance since 2007, any contribution from any player is helpful. Few have done their job as well as Jimenez, who is thrilled to be helping the team instead of hurting it.

Before, people were nervous when it was his turn to pitch. Lately, they've been excited.

"It feels really good. It's been a long time since I've been having fun every time taking the mound," Jimenez said. "I felt really disappointed in myself, coming here to Cleveland and not being able to help the team out the first couple years. But finally I'm doing it. I'm enjoying every single moment of it and hopefully will keep it going."

Every day, Jimenez dresses at a locker stall that displays a picture of him with his niece and the flag of the Dominican Republic. He has come a long way since his childhood there, a place where young boys develop strong arms by throwing stones at coconut trees, aiming to bring the fruit to the ground.

Jimenez has never forgotten his roots, and occasionally visits Hoyo Caliente, despite having purchased a more suitable home in a better part of San Cristobal. When he does go back, Jimenez is no longer cursed like he used to be. Now, he is embraced as a returning hero.

"I would have never thought I was going to say that, that I was going to be a hero in that neighborhood," Jimenez said, "because pretty much everybody kind of hated me because I played so much."

Those negative feelings rarely bothered Jimenez back in the day. Nor did his surroundings. As long as he was playing baseball, he was happy.

"If you're doing the thing that you love," he said, "it doesn't matter where you do it, or how you do it."

Mark Emery is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"event":["hispanic_heritage_month" ] }
{"event":["hispanic_heritage_month" ] }