MIAMI — Miami’s Jose Fernandez stood hatless and in an orange T-shirt behind the empty batting cage talking with Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig more than two hours before the start of Monday night’s series opener.
The two young Cuban stars had never met, and this was their chance to say a quick hello.
Now, speaking to an opponent before a game might not be as frowned upon as it once was, but … Fernandez was that night’s Marlins starting pitcher.
Most hurlers stay to themselves before a start, keeping interaction to a minimum while they focus on a plan of attack.
Not Miami’s 21-year-old kid with the golden arm.
“That was the first time,” Fernandez said when asked if he had ever previously spoken to an opponent pregame. “It was actually amazing, we were talking forever. I knew we were going to be incredible friends because we were talking about what we went though to get here and how we left over there back in Cuba. We actually used to live about 45 minutes away from each other. It was amazing.”
Fernandez dominated the conversation after Miami’s 6-2 win. He improved to 9-5 overall, including 6-0 at home, by allowing two runs (one earned) and four hits in six innings. He bested two other National League Rookie of the Year contenders by defeating Dodgers left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu (12-4) and retiring Puig three times, including a key strikeout.
Giancarlo Stanton, who homered during Miami’s three-run eighth, knew beating the Dodgers meant more to Fernandez than most other wins.
“He’s been talking to me about playing the Dodgers for a while now,” Stanton said. “I knew he was looking ahead and looking to see what he could do against a team of that caliber. I’m sure he was a little extra amped up tonight.”
Manager Mike Redmond confirmed that.
“He told me that he was fired up, that he woke up at 6:30 in the morning and that he was ready to go,” Redmond said of his ace. “To be honest with you, I was a little nervous. With a young kid, you’re not sure. But after the first inning, he settled in and executed his pitches.”
Despite walking off with the score tied at 2, Fernandez earned the victory because Logan Morrison’s sixth-inning double scored the go-ahead run.
“I know it means a little more to him, as well, even though it’s another game,” Stanton said. “It was the whole bigger picture of it.”
That bigger picture was due to the presence of baseball’s hottest team (L.A. had won 42 of its previous 51 games), the Fernandez-Puig battle and three NL ROY contenders.
Both Redmond and Stanton said Fernandez and his 2.41 ERA face an uphill fight for rookie honors partly because the Dodgers seem destined for the playoffs. Besides that, the Marlins right-hander already has thrown 145 2/3 innings in a season in which he’ll be shut down around 170.
Fernandez’s shining moment Monday night occurred in the fifth. Clinging to a 2-1 lead, he struck out Puig and Adrian Gonzalez with runners on first and third to end the threat.
“In big situations, you always look to see how young guys handle them,” Redmond said. “He’s always taken those situations and really dominated. That’s a testament to him.”
Puig saw three 97-mph fastballs during that three-pitch at-bat. He was unhappy about a called second strike, and earned a few words from home plate umpire John Hirschbeck while walking back to the Dodgers dugout after swinging and missing strike three.
“I was just trying to be smart,” said Fernandez, who credited catcher Jeff Mathis with calling the right pitches. “I’m learning a little bit. Sometimes it’s not about throwing 110, it’s about making pitches in the location they should be.
“I thought maybe he was maybe looking breaking ball because normally that’s what happens.”
Puig went 0 for 5 on the night. He popped out foul to compatriot Adeiny Hechavarria in the first, grounded out hard to the Marlins shortstop in the third, struck out facing reliever A.J. Ramos in the seventh and flied out against Steve Cishek to end the game.
Afterward, Fernandez continued to rave about his new friend.
“He’s great guy,” Fernandez said of Puig. “I was blessed to get to know him and talk to him as a friend, not as a player I’m going against, and it was pretty nice. I really like the kid. He’s pretty humble, a lot of people wouldn’t think that, but he is.”