ATLANTA — Miami Marlins right-hander Jose Fernandez was dealing aces on Tuesday night.
Fernandez, in a staggering performance that stands out in a growing line of staggering performances from the 21-year-old right-hander, delivered one of the best major-league pitching efforts of the season in a 1-0 win against the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.
Fernandez (3-1) tied a career-high with 14 strikeouts over eight innings of three-hit work, befuddling Atlanta batters in the process. He didn’t give up a free base in the process. The Braves fought for their three singles, then the door was shut.
"This is the third time we’ve seen him and you see you all the films and all the stuff last year, but he is good," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He’s got the capability of running those types of games out every time he goes out. He’s got 97, 98, 99 miles per hour early on the in game — commands his breaking ball, commands his fastball. Holds runners, you can’t even steal off him. …
"He’s pretty darn good."
Braves third baseman Chris Johnson, one of the three Atlanta hitters to reach base against Fernandez, called him the best pitcher in baseball.
"Coulda been the 99-(mph fastball) he was throwing up there," Johnson said. "Both sides of the dish, 99, slider that feels like it’s starting in their dugout and ends up on the outside corner. You catch him on a day like (Tuesday), it’s tough. When he makes a mistake, you can’t miss. And today we did.
"From when I started playing baseball, I don’t think I’ve seen a pitcher that good. It stinks he’s in our division."
Even scarier news for opposing hitters: the young starter was not exactly feeling 100 percent before the first pitch.
"My breaking ball in the bullpen was horrible, horrible," Fernandez told reporters after the game. "But I thought to myself that when they say, ‘Play ball,’ it gets better."
He’s right about that. His manager, Mike Redmond, called it the best game of Fernandez’s career.
This is typical praise that gets heaped on the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year. Following Tuesday’s gem against the Braves, which didn’t include a walk, he boasts a 1.99 ERA and a strikeout rate of more than 13 batters per nine innings. His 1.46 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) leads all qualified pitchers.
If he has a flaw, it has not come up on film yet. He’s allowed three runs or more in just six of his 33 career starts, and Tuesday marked the 11th time he’s been taken out with zeros across the board.
In terms of game score, the Bill James-created statistic that grades individual single-game performances, Fernandez’s 14-strikeout, zero-walk effort was not the preeminent outing of the 2014 season.
Fernandez scored a 90, ranking behind complete-game shutouts by San Diego’s Andrew Cashner (94 in a one-hitter vs. the Detroit Tigers) and Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto (93 in a three-hitter vs. the Pittsburgh Pirates) this season. But those scores are also reflections of game situations, as Redmond used his closer, Steve Cishek, in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s one-run game (Cashner and Cueto both had leads of four-plus runs).
Up to that point, as Johnson said, Fernandez was cruising virtually untouched through every part of the Braves lineup. Even two of the most productive hitters in baseball, Atlanta’s middle-of-the-lineup power bats Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton struck out three times apiece.
Twelve of the Fernandez’s 14 strikeouts came on swinging misses, too. He wasn’t just tallying K’s, he was making very capable hitters look incapable of piecing together good at-bats.
It was a special performance, albeit not a one-man show.
Miami was held to one run for a reason.
Braves starter Alex Wood (2-3) did his best to hang with the Marlins star throughout the contest, tossing up a gem of his own: he tied his own career high by striking out 11, going eight innings and allowing just four hits (two of which did not leave the infield) and one earned run. He did not walk a single batter.
In fact, Cishek and Braves reliever David Carpenter didn’t allow a walk, either.
That the two teams combined for 28 strikeouts and zero walks on the evening was worth a piece of history in its own right: it is the first time since 1914 two teams have combined for that many strikeouts without allowing a single base on balls.
It certainly was not a good night to be carrying a bat, even if the Marlins did sneak in that lone run thanks to back-to-back hits from Giancarlo Stanton and Casey McGeHee in the fourth inning. The game lasted just over two hours, leaving both clubhouses to admire the collective feat.
"Maybe this is one of those games that you watch on ESPN Classic three or four years down the road and you say, ‘Well OK, that was nice to see,’" Gonzalez said.
"I haven’t seen two pitchers hook up like they did today since that (Roy) Doc Halladay-Josh Johnson; one guy went a perfect game, the other guy went I think a two-hitter (Johnson allowed just one hit), and that was one of those classic games.