MIAMI — Jose Fernandez is turning Marlins Park into the place to be.
The 21-year-old captured his 10th win of the season — his seventh straight on home turf — with seven strong innings and eight strikeouts in a 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies on Saturday.
In four of Fernandez’s last five starts, the Marlins have drawn more than 20,000 fans.
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“He’s brought a lot of excitement down here in Miami, definitely brought a lot of positive press and news to this ballclub and organization when we needed it,” Marlins manager Mike Redmond said.
Fernandez’s short résumé speaks for itself. At this time last year, the righthander was on a tear in Single-A, racking up an 11-1 record. As of Saturday night, he leads all major league rookies in ERA (2.30) and strikeouts (165) and can add the honor of being named an All-Star to his qualifications.
“Maybe the only surprise is that you just don’t see that happen very often, a kid come from A-ball to the big leagues, have so much success and become an All-Star and pitch as well as he has,” Redmond said. “The only surprise is that you just don’t see that very often, and he’s been able to do it.”
For Redmond, the situation reminds him of what the Marlins experienced in 2003 — a losing club lifted by the energy of eventual NL Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis en route to its World Series. The Marlins will not be headed to the postseason on Fernandez’s arm this year, but the attitude toward the club has certainly experienced a welcomed turnaround.
“That’s what we have to do — create excitement,” Redmond said. “And Jose’s definitely helped create that excitement around here. For the fans to be able to see the players and up-and-coming players that are going to be part of this organization for many years to come is great.”
But some of the charm and youthful enthusiasm Fernandez brings is bound to be harnessed sooner than later. Twice Saturday night the starter gave Redmond a moment of pause.
In the first inning of Saturday’s contest, Fernandez produced highlight-reel material, grabbing a Troy Tulowitzki comebacker to end the inning.
“I saw it come off the bat, and I just threw my glove to it,” Fernandez said. “I’m not going to say I caught it; it caught me. But [Tulowitzki] was like, ‘You just did that?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I did.’ “
It was the kind of bullet near the head that leaves managers, coaches and front-office staff cringing.
“I thought it was smoked,” teammate Christian Yelich said. “I kind of started laughing because he kind of caught it and started walking off the field, nonchalantly, laughing.”
Fernandez’s desire to make plays extends to the basepaths as well.
Well before his teammates took to the field for batting practice, Fernandez, dressed in a sleeveless T-shirt, laid down bunt after bunt after bunt in the cage. When he finally committed to swinging, he dumped a shot into the Clevelander night club before trotting back to the locker room, laughing.
So what does one do with all that bunting practice?
Leading off the fifth, Fernandez produced, sticking the ball between the mound and third-base line. He sprinted down the line, but came up just short of reaching safely. The rookie launched himself into the air in disbelief after realizing he failed to beat Nolan Arenado’s throw.
“I’d rather have him go up there and swing the bat in that situation,” Redmond said. “But you know, he gets so amped up out there. He was trying to make a play, and I can appreciate that.
“At the same time, too, you’re a pitcher and there’s going to be a day where he’s going to have to conserve his energy. He’s not going to be flying down the line any more. I didn’t want him to bunt there, but he did that on his own.”
The opportunity for Marlins fans to see Fernandez — so polished and yet so wonderfully raw — may be coming to an end, at least this season.
The Marlins have been steadfast about limiting the rookie to 170 innings, and with tonight’s outing he has surpassed 152.
At his current pace and with about 18 more innings left before reaching the hard limit, Fernandez may only get two more starts before his first big-league season comes to an end.
The Marlins head out on a nine-game road trip Tuesday, and Fernandez’s next two starts are scheduled to come during that stretch.
But given the attention and crowds he’s been drawing, Redmond may look to insert a call-up into the Marlins rotation, delaying one of Fernandez’s starts until the team returns to Miami on Sept. 6.
“I think it’s definitely a situation where we know we’re doing the best for him. I’ve said all year, his day will come, his day will come,” Redmond said. “He’s going to pitch into September. How far into September is a mystery.”