ST. PETERSBURG - The kid in the Miami Marlins camouflage jersey, the one carrying the orange (orange?) baseball glove, waved to friends and family before he warmed up, that goofy, electric smile, inviting them in. It was his homecoming. Jose Fernandez was living his dream — and a little bit of it was their dream, too. He'd made it. Just like that, he'd made it.
“It's insane he's here already,” said Shane Bishop, who won a state baseball championship with Fernandez and his big right arm at Alonso High.
Bishop now plays for Eckerd College. Monday, he watched his friend Jose, all of 20, throw in the visiting bullpen at Tropicana Field, preparing for his 10th major-league start, back home, against the hometown Rays. Fernandez spotted Bishop and gave him a Memorial Day military salute.
“We knew he'd make it, just not this fast,” said Frank Diaz, an assistant principal at Alonso and a close Fernandez friend. Both Diaz and Fernandez came here from Cuba, by boat, Diaz in the 1980 Mariel boatlift, Jose came a lot later, danger everywhere. “He's like a son to me,” Diaz said.
Standing near the bullpen with Diaz was Wayne Crowell, a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office deputy who has served as Alonso's resources officer since the day the school opened. Monday, Crowell wore a Marlins jersey with “FERNANDEZ” on the back. Jose grinned and tossed Crowell a ball.
“Jose is our guy,” Crowell said.
And Monday was supposed to be his day. He'd pitch against the Rays, in front of several dozen of his best fans — his mom and dad, all the family, all those teachers and teammates from Alonso. There would be a big family dinner after. Game over, Jose Fernandez said the dinner would go on as planned.
“I think so, most likely. It's not going to be as happy as I thought it was going to be.”
Sometimes even Can't Miss misses. It goes with being 20.
Jose Fernandez electrified for exactly one inning. He was amped. He displayed the kind of talent, overpowering, but polished, that two years ago made him the Marlins' first-round draft pick, that lifted him into the majors this season — no Double-A ball, no Triple-A ball, just 138 minor league innings. He didn't look as if he'd been rushed along, at least in that first inning Monday.
He struck out the side, Ben Zobrist on a nasty curve, then, after a walk, Kelly Johnson on another curve, and finally Evan Longoria, the man himself, strike three swinging — on a 99 mph fastball. It was immense stuff for Jose fans. Fernandez hit 99 on the gun four times in the first. He strolled from the mound.
Then, just like that, it all went away. Two walks and a hit batter in the second, and a sac fly and an RBI single and, eventually, Johnson's first three-run homer of the day … six runs across, 6-0 Rays, just like that.
Fernandez was gone before the bottom of the fourth inning was two outs old, seven runs surrendered. He took the loss in a 10-6 Rays win. It was the shortest and worst outing of his young major-league career, a bump, a learning moment.
“I was maybe a little too pumped up,” Fernandez said. “I think I was trying to do a little too much maybe. I think today was the most pumped I've been since I got called up to the big leagues. It didn't come out right, so, I got to control that stuff.”
Even so, even some Rays saw something. Joe Maddon went deep, invoking Felix Hernandez.
“I tell you, when that kid figures it out, it's going to be outstanding,” Maddon said. “He's not just out there throwing. … I'm telling you, from an observation perspective, if he's that polished at that age, heads up, it could be like King Felix-esque.”
Johnson said, “The guy has top-three best stuff we've seen this year.”
Fernandez is 2-3 with a 3.78 ERA. But he has held his own. There were his seven innings of one-hit ball against the Phillies, owning Philadelphia slugger Ryan Howard, striking him out one last time on a 3-2 curve ball that might still be breaking. There is electricity and energy and fearlessness when Fernandez takes the hill.
“He's got a chance to be a special player,” said Marlins and former Rays pitching coach and Tampa native Chuck Hernandez, one of the men looking to limit Fernandez to 150 to 170 innings this season. Good idea.
“Every once in a while, he shows he's 20,” Hernandez said before Monday's game. “That's OK. If he throws strikes, people are going to have a lot of trouble.”
And then there's his story, irresistible, unstoppable.
Six years ago, Jose Fernandez and his family were bobbing in the waters between Cuba and Florida, a boat to freedom, trying to make it here. They were picked up and dispatched to a Cuban prison. Jose was 14. They made it across when Jose was 15.
“Trying to get here, escaping from Cuba … all that has prepared him for this,” said Alonso baseball coach Landy Faedo. “He's playing a game he loves, a game.”
What's to fear, anyway?
That doesn't mean you still don't have to occasionally bob in the water. Monday began with smiles and salutes and all those people there for Jose. They watched him trudge from the mound after he was lifted, his head down. They began texting him. Fernandez read some in the clubhouse.
“They said keep your head up. It happens,” he said.