Friday, May 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

When Jose Fernandez died, Lance McCullers lost his 'big brother'

They only had the one ax.

It was how the friends often ended their offseason workouts. They were young, star baseball pitchers with the world there for the taking. They would swing with all their might at a tree stump near their practice field, or at tall trees beyond the outfield fence at Alonso High School. They took turns.

"The person who knocked the tree down would win," Lance McCullers Jr. said. "We usually took 20 swings, then switched. But Jose would usually take an extra couple of hacks. He'd go over his 20 because he wanted to be the one to knock the tree down."

McCullers laughed into the phone:

"You've got to let big brother win. Know what I mean?"

Big brother.

Jose Fernandez.

They buried Jose Fernandez on Thursday in Miami. Lance McCullers attended the service. There were more tears.

McCullers, who turns 23 on Sunday and who pitches for the Houston Astros, has been thinking about his 24-year-old friend since he got word last Sunday. McCullers is the son of a former major-league pitcher. Fernandez's father left when Jose was an infant. McCullers grew up in Tampa Bay. Fernandez arrived in Tampa in 2008 after finally escaping Castro's Cuba.

They came together.

"Our stories were different," McCullers said. "But we shared a drive to make our dreams a reality. It kind of made us good friends and bros. We started training together. I was one of his first friends in Tampa."

Fernandez was a year ahead of McCullers in school, dominating for Alonso while McCullers starred for Jesuit. They both owned right arms sent down from the gods. And they shared a private pitching coach, Orlando Chinea, who had fled Cuba like Fernandez. Chinea came up with some of the offbeat workouts, like having Fernandez and McCullers push his car around a parking lot. And there was the general landscaping. The ax.

As they would swing, and sweat, Jose would remind Lance.

"He'd tell me we're striving to be the greatest," McCullers said. "For Jose, it was real. For Jose, it was to maybe be the greatest ever. He could have been. He was that special a talent."

McCullers has two favorite pictures with Fernandez, one at Jose's mom's house in 2015, another from 2010, when they were babies, teenagers sitting on a tree stump after a workout, holding the ax.

Fernandez was a first-round draft pick in 2011 by the Marlins. McCullers was a supplemental first-round pick in 2012. Fernandez raced to the majors. He was voted National League rookie of the year in 2013. He was 21. McCullers wasn't exactly a slowpoke. He made his big-league debut last season, had a fine rookie season and pitched in the playoffs shortly after his 22nd birthday.

McCullers can't get Fernandez out of his head.

"I see that smile, the one that always brought you in," McCullers said. "A lot of people are going to think about him on the field. I'm going to think about those workouts, pushing the car around, swinging that ax, going to the mall, going to the food court. That's what I remember about Jose."

He paused.

"And what came to mind was the day at the Alonso baseball field, when we talked about one day facing each other in the big leagues."

They never even pitched against each other in high school.

"We're going to Miami next season," McCullers said. His voice trailed off.

McCullers' second season in the majors has been frustrating. He began the season on the disabled list with shoulder soreness. He returned to go 6-5 with a 3.22 ERA with 106 strikeouts in 81 innings before was sidelined by an elbow sprain. He was at the Astros' complex in Kissimmee this week, set to return, only Houston ran out of season. McCullers' future remains bright.

Jose Fernandez missed what amounted to an entire season after Tommy John surgery in 2014. People forget that. His generational talent was on display in his final start, Sept. 20 in Miami: eight innings, three hits, 12 strikeouts and no walks in a 1-0 win over Washington. All that was lost on that jetty that will make people cry for years.

Lance McCullers will work out in Tampa this offseason. He'll throw. And he'll swing the ax. He'll take his 20. Then he'll throw in a few more for his friend Jose.

"For sure I will," he said.

"I think I'll see him again. I believe that. When I was growing up, my grandpa would always say that the thunder and rain is just the angels playing baseball. They definitely got their ace, that's for sure. They've got Jose."

 
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