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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – In a season full of misery, the Miami Marlins do have one bright spot on the team, rookie pitcher Jose Fernandez.
The 20-year-old Cuban defector was on the fast track to the majors this season, but injuries forced the Marlins to call him up very early in the season. Since then, Fernandez has racked up a 4-3 record on a team that has been abysmal.
Heading into Wednesday’s start at Arizona, Fernandez ranks among the top three rookies in the majors in ERA (3.11) , strikeouts per inning (77 in 72 1-3) and opposing batting average (.210). Such statistics are all the more impressive because he doesn’t turn 21 until July 31.
Fernandez became the first pitcher under 21 to allow less than two runs and less than four hits in each of his first two career starts since 1965. And in his most recent outing, Fernandez became the first pitcher under 21 to strike out 10 or more since Felix Hernandez with Seattle in 2007.
“He’s similar to Felix when he was younger,” two-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay said. “He has that presence and that kind of stuff. If he continues to develop, he could be one of those guys.”
Fernandez smiles when such praise is relayed to him, but then he smiles much of the time, mindful of how far he has come.
The 90 miles from Cuba to Florida is a long way.
“It has been pretty hard for me to get here — not to the big leagues, but to the United States,” he said. “Living in Cuba for 15 years taught me a lot. Life over there is pretty tough. I’m incredibly blessed to be in the United States.”
Fernandez’s first three attempts to defect were foiled, and the youngster spent several months in prison. Finally he escaped the island by boat with his mother, and when she fell into the Yucatan Channel, he jumped in and pulled her out.
They made it to Mexico and eventually reunited in Tampa, Fla., with his father, who had escaped from Cuba two years earlier.
At Tampa Alonso High School, Fernandez began hearing he was destined for greatness. He learned to speak fluent English while contemplating stardom and plotting a persona.
“It’s great to be humble,” he said, sounding like a country song. “People will love you more in the long run. I don’t want to be just a good pitcher. I want to be a great example on the field.”
The hype about Fernandez has been justified. He went 30-3 in three prep seasons, helped his team win two state titles and was taken by the Marlins with the 14th overall pick in the 2011 draft. He went 14-2 with a 2.02 ERA in 27 minor-league starts, none above Single-A, and cracked the Marlins’ rotation with a strong spring.
“He has the ability to execute pitches like only a handful of guys I’ve ever seen,” Miami manager Mike Redmond said.
At 6-foot-2 and 242 pounds, Fernandez is physically mature for his age, and his repertoire is also advanced. Many of his strikeouts come on a slider or curve, which he’ll throw even on a 3-2 count, and this year he added an effective changeup to go with his fastball, which is consistently in the mid-90s and peaks at 98 mph.
“He’s so polished for a young pitcher,” Redmond said. “It’s amazing how good his secondary pitches are.”
The Marlins have been careful with the youngster’s workload, and they’ll likely limit him to no more than 170 innings this year. But he wants to be a workhorse and was pleased to throw a career-high 107 pitches to beat the high-scoring Cardinals in his most recent start, especially after giving up two runs in the first inning.
“I compete my butt off,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who I’m facing. It could be the best hitter in the world; it could be my mom. I compete and compete and compete and compete, and that’s what everybody is going to get out of me every time.”
Was it a thrill to beat the Cardinals? Heck, it was a thrill just to meet them.
“One of the special moments in the game: The first time I went up to hit, Yadier Molina was catching,” Fernandez said. “I look up to that guy. When they won the World Series, I saw him catch and I said, ‘Man, I wish one day I could shake his hand.’
“So I said, ‘Man, it’s a pleasure to be playing against you.’ He said, ‘No, it’s my pleasure.’ It was great to get to pitch against him.”
And perhaps someday Molina will tell his grandkids about the first time he met Jose Fernandez.
(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)