MIAMI — Monday's game had been over for nearly an hour, and the Marlins players returned to the mound, crowding onto the clay. This was a far less solemn meeting than the one before the game and the one after, when they paid tribute to their fallen friend, Jose Fernandez.
A few salutes and some laughter could be heard in the empty stadium. After nearly two days of stunned disbelief and denial after Fernandez and two others were killed early Sunday morning in a boating accident, it seemed as if the healing process was slowly emerging.
"Strength came tonight," rightfielder Giancarlo Stanton said after the Marlins beat the Mets 7-3 at Marlins Park.
The Marlins circled the mound after the win, leaving their hats on top of the pitching rubber as they left the field. The fans chanted, "Jose! Jose! Jose!" for the last of many times during the night.
Sunday's game against the Braves was cancelled, so the Marlins returned to the field Monday for the first time since learning of Fernandez's death.
It was not an easy day, second baseman Dee Gordon said.
"We're not robots," he said. "It was the most difficult game I ever played in."
The players had two goals for Monday: honor Fernandez; and somehow manage to get through a game with huge postseason implications for the Mets, who are battling for a wild-card spot.
Fernandez, who settled in Tampa after defecting with his mother and sister from Cuba in 2008 during their fourth try to flee the island nation, began his rise to baseball fame at Alonso High.
After winning two state titles, Fernandez was taken in the first round of the 2011 draft by the Marlins. He reached the majors two years later and won the National League rookie of the year award. He also pitched in the first of two All-Star Games.
He developed into one of the top pitchers in baseball, a true ace who could anchor a championship team for years while collecting Cy Young Awards.
That's all gone now. He was only 24.
Fernandez's former teammates honored him Monday by writing his initials and uniform No. 16 on their caps and scribbling his initials and number in the clay around the pitcher's mound.
The organization honored him by having the entire team wear No. 16 jerseys for the game.
The Mets paid their respects by walking across the infield to shake hands and offer hugs to the Marlins after the playing of the national anthem.
The eight Marlins in the starting lineup stood near the mound during the pregame tribute. Starting pitcher Adam Conley did not.
"That was Jose's mound," he said. "It was Jose's day to start."
Conley was emotionless as he spoke to the media after the game.
"Nothing I felt today had anything to do with pitching," he said. "I don't even know what I did out there."
Gordon, the Marlins left-handed-hitting leadoff hitter, stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first batting right-handed. He took one pitch and turned around and hit left-handed. Then he hit a home run, his first of the season.
Gordon was emotional as he rounded the bases and broke down when he entered the dugout.
"I just wondered why he wasn't there on the top step of the dugout cheering for me," Gordon said.
As the day progressed, Gordon said he found himself looking for Fernandez.
"How is he not here? How did he not show up today?" Gordon said.
It's a question the Marlins players will likely ask themselves every day during this final week of the season and again in February when they assemble for spring training.
Stanton talked about how they will miss Fernandez on the flight Thursday to Washington for the final series of the year and on the bus rides to and from the stadium.
Manager Don Mattingly said seeing Fernandez's No. 16 on the front of Marlins Park on Monday when he arrived for work was a blow.
"It didn't come easy today," he said.
But he was proud of how his players handled themselves.
"I think they knew it was one of those rough days that wasn't scripted," Mattingly said. "Nobody tells you how to handle it."
Actually, that question was asked by the players at the end of the pregame tribute when they gathered on the grass behind the mound.
"A lot of players were saying, 'Why are we here? What's our purpose? How do we get through it?' " Stanton said.
He tried to put their minds at ease.
"We're here for Jose," he said.
VICTIMS ID'ED: The two others who died in the boating accident were Emilio Macias, 27, and Eduardo Rivero, 25. The boat was registered to Fernandez.
Information from Times wires was used in this report.