JUPITER, Fla. — Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez does not really understand the idea of a "sophomore slump." Nor does he care to.
The reigning NL Rookie of the Year returned to Roger Dean Stadium Sunday with his fellow pitchers and catchers, this time focused on producing a spectacular encore for his second major-league season.
"I don’t want to [hear about it]," Fernandez said of the jinx. "A lot of guys are saying that. I don’t know. Anything can happen, but man, I’m feeling well. I am feeling really good. Before I came here, last week I was throwing a bullpen [session] in Tampa and I was feeling really well."
Last year at this time, Fernandez found himself relegated to a corner of the locker room reserved for players not slated for the 40-man roster. The Marlins organization projected he would start with Double-A Jacksonville. Last-minute injuries during spring training last season led to Fernandez being included on the Marlins’ Opening Day roster.
"I think there has been a lot of luck there, too, with things that happened," Fernandez said. "I always work hard and I thought last year at this time, I came here to make the team," Fernandez said. "I got lucky enough and made the team, and the year started. It feels good because I was working hard and it paid off."
What ensued was a memorable season in which Fernandez went 12-6, posted a 2.19 ERA and registered 187 strikeouts. He finished third in the NL Cy Young voting.
"This year, I think I am on the team," Fernandez said with a grin.
But when asked if success has shifted his approach heading into spring, Fernandez insists it has not.
"I come here to compete and I come here to throw better than everybody and do the best that I can," Fernandez said. "I’m not coming here to be, ‘I’m on the team, I am not going to work hard.’ No, that’s not going to happen. I like to work hard. And I like to compete. This spring training is to get better and get ready.
"At the end of the day, it’s kind of the same — being quiet, working hard, learning. I’m here to learn and that’s how it is going to be until I retire. That’s the plan, just work hard and learn from everybody."
When he arrived here Sunday, a simple act showed Fernandez is still humbled by being in the majors: He took a photo of his locker nestled among the big-league veterans.
"I could show you my phone — I took a picture of it," Fernandez said. "I was like a first-year guy, taking a picture. I’m going to [tweet] it later."
Hard work is built into Fernandez’s psyche. The pitcher gained attention during the offseason when photos of him chopping wood and pushing trucks surfaced online. And with spring training underway, Fernandez is adding a daily bike ride to work which should take around 20-30 minutes each way.
"I’ve been doing that since 2008, since I got here," Fernandez said. "To me, that’s nothing new. It got me ready to today. It’s not going to change now because I pitch in the big leagues. Basically, I kept the same routine. Everything I’ve done since I’ve got here, I’ve done it this year."
It isn’t just work ethic that has the Marlins wondering what Fernandez might do for an encore. His teammates are wowed by his pure talent.
Marlins reliever Mike Dunn said he heard a little about Fernandez before last season, but did not know exactly how skilled the prospect was until he watched him throw during spring training.
"The stuff he had was unbelievable," Dunn said. "As long as he didn’t do something he couldn’t do, as long as he stayed inside himself, you saw what he did last year. He just went out there and pitched his way. The caliber of his stuff is unbelievable. It’s not a big surprise to me. He can throw 100 mph and he has a nasty breaking ball, and he can throw them both for strikes."
Newcomer Jarrod Saltalamacchia agreed it is no surprise Fernandez rose to stardom so quickly. Even during the daily grind of last season in Boston, the catcher followed the rookie’s progress. It is part of what led Saltalamacchia to sign with Miami.
"We had the TVs on every single day in the clubhouse, watching all the games," Saltalamacchia said. "You see the stuff he has, it’s not surprising to see guys like him and [Mets’ pitcher Matt] Harvey go out there and do what they’ve done on just pure talent alone. It’s [going to be] scary to see what he’s going to be like when he starts to pitch a little more and he’s more advanced than guys his age."
Fernandez is just as excited to be paired with Saltamacchia, not just because they share similar personalities — "crazy outgoing" as Fernandez says. The veteran, who won a World Series in Boston last year, has instilled in the young hurler idea of Miami being a playoff team.
"It’s funny, we were doing a commercial and talking about playoffs and things like that — things I never heard last year," Fernandez said. "I like it. That’s why we’re here today. I’ve talked to a lot of guys, and that’s why we’re here. We want to make it to the playoffs."
For that to happen, of course, Fernandez will have to be at his best.
But the desire to pitch well goes beyond numbers and results. Fernandez, whose reunion with his grandmother, Olga, was well documented this offseason, will be around this season to watch him pitch at Marlins Park.
"It’s just incredible having her here, and having her in the stands will be really special."
For Fernandez, it might even lead to some momentous achievements on the field.