Thursday, May 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Alonso's Fernandez proves majors-ready with Marlins

The outrage has quelled, the consternation faded, the doubts just memories.

Jose Fernandez is just fine, thank you.

The 20-year-old former Alonso High star has lived up to his status as one of baseball's young phenoms.

Despite his youth, lack of pro experience and the slight hint of desperation surrounding the Miami Marlins franchise that caused many to question the team's motives when it promoted the right-handed pitcher to the majors in April, Fernandez has so far proven to the naysayers what the front office said from the start:

He is ready.

"His stuff," Marlins pitching coach Chuck Hernandez said, "smells major-league quality."

Rays fans, and many of those who watched the 6-foot-2, 240-pounder star for Alonso, will get a whiff of that talent today when the Marlins send their prized rookie to the mound at Tropicana Field.

"I love Tampa, so I think they're going to welcome me pretty good there,'' Fernandez told the Sun-Sentinel. "There's like 40 teachers from the school going to go, the principal and those guys.

"I imagine a lot of friends that played with me. Some of them have texted me and let me know, 'I'm going, I can't wait to see you pitch.' It's incredible."

Though his promotion to the Marlins after 27 minor-league starts — none above Class A — was a shock to many, Fernandez has shown command and control beyond his years in the first two months of his career.

His debut was spectacular, as he threw five innings against the Mets in New York, allowed three hits and struck out eight.

In three starts against Philadelphia, he has thrown 18 innings and allowed eight hits, including a seven-inning, one-hit, nine-strikeout game this month for his first major-league win.

He beat the Dodgers on May 10, and afterward Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly compared him to a younger, not-quite-as-polished Felix Hernandez, the Mariners' ace.

"It's incredible what's been happening here, facing these guys that I've been watching on TV for the last four or five years that I've been here,'' said Fernandez, who defected from Cuba in 2007. "Like (Carl) Crawford the other day in Los Angeles, I saw him play in Tampa when I got here. So facing him now is like, wow."

Though he's only 2-2, he has pitched well enough to have at least three other victories.

"At times he has been dominating, and at other times, well, it's the major leagues," said Hernandez, 52, a pitcher at Tampa Catholic in the late '70s and a former Rays and USF pitching coach. "I'm not worried about it. I knew his talent, I saw his talent, I like his talent. He's got a strong mental makeup and a toughness to him that you don't see in other 20-year-olds."

That toughness has been well documented — four unsuccessful attempts to flee Cuba until finally making it on a harrowing trip in which he had to jump into rough seas to pull out his mother, who could not swim and had been tossed off the boat by 10-foot waves.

Reunited with his family in Tampa, he enrolled at Alonso and led the Ravens to a pair of state titles. In 2011, he was the Times' All-Suncoast Player of the Year.

Fernandez arduously trained in Tampa with Cuban pitching coach Orlando Chinea while in high school. Chinea, who worked with big-leaguers such as Rolando Arrojo, Jose Contreras and Orlando and Livan Hernandez, turned Fernandez from a pitcher throwing 83 mph at the start of his sophomore year to one who threw 94 by the end of it.

"He told me during the game, 'Coach, I hit 94,' and I said, 'Awesome,' " Alonso coach Landy Faedo said. "He told me he was going to throw 96 by his senior year. I said, 'No. Jose, you can do 97-98 by then.' And he did. He was the hardest worker we've ever had here."

Hernandez, then the pitching coach at USF — Fernandez was a Bulls signee — showed up at an Alonso game to check on the prized recruit. "I left after three innings because I knew the South Florida Bulls were never going to see Jose Fernandez," Hernandez said. "But I knew in the first inning."

It was his control, Hernandez said, that seemed to set him apart. That command is still a Fernandez calling card: He has walked two or fewer batters in six of his nine starts, and he threw 52 of his 79 pitches Tuesday against the Phillies for strikes.

His high 90s fastball is complemented by a big-time curveball dubbed "The Defector."

He was taken No. 14 in the draft in 2011, and received a $2 million signing bonus. He threw only 8⅔ innings that first summer, allowing 10 hits and 10 runs.

But last year, he simply overmatched the competition. Playing for two teams in A and high-A ball, Fernandez was 14-1 with a 1.75 ERA, striking out 158 in 134 innings.

His only loss? Against the Tampa Yankees, in Tampa.

By the time spring training rolled around, it was time, the Marlins determined.

He was ready.

"You gotta know the makeup of a player," Hernandez said. "If you don't have the mental makeup at a young, young age, there's no chance pushing that down his throat before he's ready. But Jose is mature beyond age, and he was ready for it. In a lot of respects, he would have almost been bored in the minor leagues."

Information from the Sun Sentinel was used in this story.

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