Cuban sensation Jose Fernandez is kissing cousins with adversity, but he's also every opposing batter's daddy when he's healthy and hitting his spots. On Thursday, Fernandez returned to the mound after missing over a year of action while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery "AKA" the pitcher extraordinaire's gift and curse.
Fernandez not only gave his club a talent boost and according to PitchFX topped out at a remarkable 100.2 mph in Florida's 5-4 victory over the World Champion San Francisco Giants, but his presence lifted the spirits of Marlins fans and the confidence of the eight guys battling with him. After falling behind 3-1 in the game, Fernandez settled into a flow more indicative of his performance at full capacity. And when his team's bats didn't match his pitching prowess, Fernandez (who isn't afraid to swing the lumber) took matters into his own hands.
Leading off the bottom of the fifth Fernandez—facing the Giants' Matt Cain, another pitcher making his 2015 debut after an injury-shortened '14—ran the count to 1–1, then connected on a 91-mile-per-hour fastball that stayed belt-high and didn't move. Fernandez didn't miss it, booming a shot out to left-centerfield that just got over the Clevelander pool and bar section in Marlins Park. The homer, which was Fernandez's first since his rookie season in '13, set off a buckwild celebration at the stadium, with Fernandez getting a standing ovation as he rounded the bases. It was also just the appetizer for what would become a huge inning. A couple of batters later, Miami's Justin Bour got touched with the mash music and hit a three-run shot off of Cain, to give Miami a 5-3 lead entering the top of the sixth. Fernandez came out and finished the storybook return with fervor.
He K's Brandon Belt on a pitch that ripped the corner and clipped the knees, then he easily retired the next two batters. Six innings of pain free work equals total success in this situation. The three runs and seven hits the Giants got were the most ever allowed at home by "The Santa Clara Kid" who improved to 13-0 at Marlins Park, but overall it was the perfect way to tie a bow on a highly-anticipated pitching return by a young stud whose presence makes MLB a more appealing league.
In what has become an increasingly common fate for young hurlers of this generation, on May 12 of 2014 Fernandez' brilliant season was cut short and he was placed on the 15-day disabled list due to a right elbow sprain. An MRI later revealed the worst -- a torn UCL and a premature ending to Fernandez's sophomore season and the elimination of the only reason miserable Marlins fans had to come to the ballpark. Before getting shelved, the golden-armed boy wonder made eight starts going 4-2 with a 2.44 ERA and 70 strikeouts. He underwent Tommy John surgery on May 16.
Fernandez began 2015 on the 60-day disabled list to continue recovery from his surgery. He had a 13-month grueling mental and physical rehab process and after some positive minor league assignments, he was ready to rock. While the Marlins have upgraded their talent pool and are not the doormats they've been in the past, at 34-46 they are still 9.5 games out of the NL East race. Fernandez' return is right on time and his presence means less prolonged losing streaks in Florida's future.
Matt Cain, on the other hand is a bit older than Fernandez and not as immediately resilient. At 30, Cain has been in the game for 11 years and remains a key piece in San Fran's prolific postseason success over the past six seasons. Cain had elbow surgery last year to remove bone chips and shave down spurs, cleaning out the junk that had limited his range of motion for years. The Giants gradually built up Cain's workload this spring but his looser arm overheated in his final exhibition start, and he began the year on the disabled list with a strained flexor tendon near his elbow. Cain's performance wasn't terrible for a guy that hasn't toted a major league rubber in 51 weeks, but his fifth inning meltdown couldn't match Fernandez's turn up. Cain allowed five runs, seven hits and four walks over five innings and it's safe to say he will never be the guy who went 16-5 with a 2.79 ERA and 193 K's (2012) again.
The baby-faced Fernandez, however, his most glorious baseball days lie up the road. His past is just strengthening a legendary future.
Before the Marlins drafted Fernandez in the first round, with the 14th overall selection of the 2011 MLB Draft, and gave him a $2 million signing bonus, he unsuccessfully attempted to defect to the U.S. three times, and each time he got bagged, he did a prison stint. He finally defected with his mother and sister in 2008, but during that saga his mom fell overboard when the boat hit rocky waters, and a 15-year-old José had to dive in and save his mother's life.
Escaping Castro’s clutches was hard, but Fernandez has been rougher on batters since storming the MLB scene in 2013 with a Rookie of the Year dominance, flair and killer instinct not seen since Dwight "Dr. K" Gooden. In the mold of past Cuban stars such as Luis Tiant, Tony Perez and Tony Oliva, the trials and tribulations of Fernandez' pre-MLB life has instilled a fearlessness and confidence years beyond his 22-years of age.
Fernandez finished his explosive inaugural campaign as the lone superstar and bright spot on a dark and dusty, star-less Marlins franchise. He managed to win more games than he lost (12-6) and his 2.19 ERA was second in the NL to Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw's 1.83.
To put his impact into further perspective, in Fernandez's 28 starts, the Marlins were 18-10. Fernandez led all NL rookies in ERA, strikeouts (187), batting average against (.182) and WHIP (0.98). He also averaged 9.75 strikeouts per nine innings
Fernandez started his sophomore campaign with heaps of optimism as the Opening Day starter for the Marlins, making him the youngest opening day starting pitcher since Dr. K in 1986. Fernández recorded nine strikeouts while walking none, joining Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins, Walter Johnson, and Cy Young as the only pitchers to flex such a line on Opening Day.
He's picking up where he left off last season and the optimism surrounding the future of this Marlin's club just went through the roof. The Miami Pound Machine is back and if watching Dee Gordon hit inside the park homers isn't your thing, every fifth day you can check out one of the game's greatest young arms as he tries to bring respectability back to the Marlins franchise one 100 mph heater at a time.