MIAMI (AP) — Always restless when he’s not pitching, Jose Fernandez clowns with teammates and leads cheers in the dugout, offers to pinch run and begs to pinch hit.
But all the Miami Marlins really want him to do is lead them out of last place, beginning Monday against the Colorado Rockies.
The reigning NL Rookie of the Year will make his first opening day start, and at age 21, he’s not convinced he’s ready to be one of the team’s leaders.
“Supposedly I’m one of the best pitchers or whatever on the team,” Fernandez said. “Everybody is looking to see what you do. If I’ve got to be a leader, I’ve got no problem with it. But it’s hard because I’m the youngest, so nobody will pay attention to me. And I’m always joking around. I’m the fun, goofy guy.”
Everyone agrees life with the Marlins will be more fun if they start winning more. They’ve finished last in the NL East each of the past three years, and lost 100 games in 2013.
They expect to be better this season, and that won’t be hard. How much better?
“It’s time for us to start some history here and win a World Series,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who knows exactly what that requires. He played for the World Series champion Boston Red Sox last year.
Saltalamacchia is part of a lineup shakeup that has the Marlins believing they’ll score more than in 2013, when they ranked last in the majors in most offensive categories. Only two players who started the 2013 opener will be in the batting order against Colorado.
The Rockies have room for improvement, too. They went 74-88 last year and finished last in the NL West.
They’re beginning their first season since 1996 without first baseman Todd Helton, who retired. His replacement is Justin Morneau, who joins a potent lineup that includes Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki and Michael Cuddyer, the NL batting champion.
Cuddyer batted only .188 in spring training but had bad luck on some hard-hit balls.
“If it evens out, I might hit .500 in April,” he said. “You can’t guarantee results, and once the bat hits the ball you can’t guarantee where it’s going to go. All you can do is feel comfortable at the plate, and I’m ready to go.”
Hard-throwing Rockies left-hander Jorge De La Rosa, who went 16-6 last year, will make his first opening day start mindful of his late mother, Juana, who died of cancer just before the start of spring training.
The honor caps a comeback by De La Rosa from reconstructive elbow surgery in 2011.
“It’s very special,” he said. “All the rehab and all the sacrifice I did when I was hurt, I’m really excited for this. I hope I can do good things for the team.”
Fernandez will take the mound eager to build on his remarkable rookie season. He went 12-6 for a team that finished 38 games under .500, and his 2.19 ERA was second in the majors to Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.
“He’ll be amped up,” Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. “He’s pretty animated on the mound. He has a lot of fun pitching. I think that comes through in his body language and everything. He’s got a lot of passion for what he does. And he’s pretty good.”
If Fernandez struggles this season, it won’t be because he’s resting on his laurels. He wants to get his ERA below 2.00, and said he has been so eager for the season to start he had trouble sleeping during spring training.
“His drive and focus are still there,” Marlins manager Mike Redmond said. “You watch to make sure guys still have the drive and work ethic, and he’s off the charts. He’s motivated and hungry. He knows how important he is to our ballclub.”
The Marlins’ offseason moves stoked Fernandez’s enthusiasm. Their payroll again ranks among the smallest in the majors, but they did give precocious slugger Giancarlo Stanton his first big contract — a $6.5 million, one-year deal. They also added Saltalamacchia, first baseman Garrett Jones, second baseman Rafael Furcal and third baseman Casey McGehee, hoping that veteran bats can provide a little punch.
Miami went 18-12 in spring training, best in the NL.
“I’m happy about how we’re looking this year,” Fernandez said, “and I can’t wait to see how we’re going to do.”
He’s now a leader, but he’s still a cheerleader.
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