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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fernandez armed for speedy ascent with Marlins

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 08:58 PM
TAMPA -

His homecoming was delayed a day because of rain, about the only thing that can stop Tampa's Jose Fernandez and his right arm these days. His fastball once hit triple digits. His future is going a million miles an hour.

"This is all happening so fast, big time," Fernandez said.

He was at Steinbrenner Field on Tuesday night, two weeks short of his 20th birthday, gleefully pitching to the Tampa Yankees for the glory of the Class-A Jupiter Hammerheads of the Florida State League. The stadium was mainly empty, but there were cheers from his family, his fiancé, from high school coaches and teammates, all for the red hot Miami Marlins prospect's first game back home in his first full year as a professional pitcher.

"It's huge," Fernandez said.

"Jose is living his dream," said Mike Fahrman, who caught Fernandez at Alonso High School and is now a catcher at Florida. "Jose is on his way."

In his third start for Jupiter, on a five-inning limit, Fernandez impressed with eight strikeouts. His fastball was electric and his breaking balls messed with minds. He walked no one and allowed just four hits. But the other pitcher was a little better, and a bloop double scored the game's only run. It was Fernandez's first professional loss after eight wins.

No matter. He brimmed with confidence. He was joyful, frisky and fearless. He was, in a word, Jose.

"I love it all," Fernandez said.

Who can blame him?

A little more than five years ago, Fernandez was bobbing in the water with his family, on a boat to freedom, somewhere between Cuba and Miami, trying to make it to America. He was picked up and briefly landed in an open-air prison in Cuba. He was 14. He made it here when he was 15. A little more than a year ago, Fernandez helped lead Alonso to a second consecutive state baseball championship.

Thirteen months ago, he was selected in the first round of the baseball draft by Miami. No irony there, eh? He signed for a $2 million signing bonus. He bought his mother, Maritza, a house in Westchase a new car. He bought his high school sweetheart, Alejandra, an engagement ring. Fernandez treated himself to a black BMW. The personalized Marlins tag reads JDF16, his initials and his jersey number.

Oh, and he has treated the Marlins organization to an 8-1 record with a 2.11 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 94 innings. He might get to Miami a lot faster this time around. Fernandez is hailed by some as the Marlins' best homegrown pitching prospect since someone named Josh Beckett.

"It's fun," Fernandez said. "Beckett. What are we talking about here? We're talking about a guy who has been amazing. I don't want to be like him. I want to be my own thing. I want to do my own thing. I want to be the greatest pitcher. I want to be the best one. That's what I work for."

Fernandez began this baseball year in North Carolina as a Greensboro Grasshopper in low-A ball. He went through the South Atlantic League like a locust: a 7-0 record, a 1.59 ERA, 99 strikeouts in just 79 innings. He was part of a combined no-hitter. At one point, he threw 27 consecutive scoreless innings. His fastball was clocked once at 100 mph. There was nowhere to go but up, to high-A in Jupiter.

He participated in the Futures Game at the recent major league All-Star festivities in Kansas City. He threw a scoreless inning, striking out two. Fernandez's first pitch registered at 99 mph.

"The thing we've noticed is that he's driven, he's on a mission," Jupiter manager Andy Haines said.

"He comes to the ball park to learn," said Marlins vice president of player development Marty Scott. "Jose is a special kid with a special story and a great work ethic."

"He has major-league weapons," Jupiter pitching coach Joe Coleman said. "Jose has all the talent. He has a feeling that he's good. I'm putting it that way instead of the other way."

"Cocky" is the other way. His fiance tells Jose to calm down. He might need to reel it in some. His Alonso teammates always allowed for it, knowing how hard he worked and the pure joy of being around Jose, beyond his 30-3 record and 314 strikeouts. Alonso coach Landy Faedo smiled and remembered Fernandez sprinting around the bases after hitting a key home run in a state semifinal.

"I kept yelling 'Slow down! Slow down!' He was coming at me like a bat out of hell when he rounded third," Faedo said. "… I'm so happy for him. He deserves everything. I never had anybody work harder."

There will be bumps in this climb. Fernandez shrugs. He thinks of how far he has come. So does his mother.

"Why should he be afraid of anything?" Maritza said, using Alejandra as an interpreter. "We were in a boat with sharks all around us trying to leave Cuba."

In spring training last February, with all the Marlins big leaguers around, Fernandez wore a loud orange glove. Marty Scott tells the story:

"I told him if you don't throw well, they're going to laugh at that orange glove and call you a hot dog. If you take that glove on the field, you better dominate. He looked right at me and said 'I will.'"

Imagine if he makes it to the majors … a Cuban who tried to get here by boat, who finally made it, playing at the Marlins ballpark in the Miami area known as Little Havana. No story there.

"It's a book and a movie," said Ken Turkel, Fernandez's Tampa-based agent.

"I came here to work my butt off and be one of the greatest pitchers," Fernandez said. "I want those kids who grow up here in Tampa or anywhere in the United State to say oh, wow, this kid came here when he was 15 and look at what he's done, pitching in the big leagues, he's learning the language, he went to school, he's a good kid to look up to.

The Marlins won't rush him. Fernandez expects to pitch in A ball all this season. But while his innings might be limited, his dreams already go the distance.

"When I get to the big leagues, I want to be an All Star," he said. "I want to be a Hall of Famer."

Tuesday, he struck out the final two hitters he faced. The last batter went back and forth with Fernandez, the two chirping at each other throughout the at-bay until a breaking ball called third strike. "He wanted me to throw him my fastball," Fernandez said. "… I told him 'Hit my curve." Some Tampa Yankees and their fans yelled at the pitcher with the orange glove. Mike Fahrman, his old Alonso catcher, grinned.

"That's our Jose," he said.

He's on his way.

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