FORT MYERS -- As he made his way to the bullpen to begin his warmups, the pitcher stopped when a young boy held out a baseball card — a Leo Nuñez card — for him to sign.
“J.C.O.” the hurler wrote in blue pen before continuing on his way.
The 14-year-old, Spencer Bennett, stared at the strange initialing for a moment before the light bulb went off and it suddenly made sense to him. The Leo Nuñez pictured on the card was no longer named Leo Nuñez.
He was Juan Carlos Oviedo.
On Monday, more than nine months since he last stood on a mound and pitched in an actual game, the Marlins reliever returned to the pitching rubber in his first rehab outing for Single A Jupiter.
The public-address announcer introduced him as “Juan Carlos Oviedo” for the first time in his professional career.
“I was happy to hear my name,” Oviedo said following his brief outing, which lasted one inning. “No more Leo Nuñez. My name is Juan Carlos Oviedo, and I’m happy to be back.”
Oviedo last pitched for the Marlins on Sept. 21.
The past nine months have been a trying ordeal for Oviedo, after it was discovered he wasn’t who he said he was, was returned to the Dominican, was placed on the Marlins’ restricted list, and was hit with an eight-week suspension by Major League Baseball once he finally worked his way through the red tape and made it back to the United States.
He said he watched Marlins games on TV from the Dominican and it made him sad.
“Sometimes I cried,” he said.
He stood to earn $6 million had he started the season with the Marlins. Because he has missed most of it, he’ll receive just over a third of that figure once his suspension is up and he’s eligible to return to the Marlins on July 23.
Considering how poorly Heath Bell has performed in the closer’s role, the Marlins might wish Oviedo’s return date was even sooner. Bell blew his sixth save opportunity on Sunday in St. Louis, and manager Ozzie Guillen said he might turn the ninth-inning role over to someone else following the All-Star break.
Oviedo saved 92 games to go with 21 blown saves in his 2 1/2 seasons as the Marlins’ closer from 2009-11.
But he said Monday he doesn’t care what relief role he’s handed.
“I’ll throw whatever inning — the seventh inning, the sixth inning — I don’t care,” he said.
Oviedo even sounded sympathetic for Bell.
“I watch the games,” Oviedo acknowledged. “Bell’s a good pitcher. Maybe in the second half, he’ll be better.”
On Monday, in a minor-league setting with perhaps no more than 500 spectators on hand to watch, Oviedo retired the three batters he faced. He caught one hitter looking with his changeup, and the digital reading on the scoreboard once flashed 95 mph for one of his fastballs.
Oviedo said he has also been working on refining his slider, which he intends to use with much greater frequency.
“His slider looks really good,” said friend and Marlins teammate Emilio Bonifacio, who is rehabbing with the Hammerheads. “He’ll be a much better pitcher with three pitches instead of two.”
Oviedo is scheduled to pitch again on Wednesday and might also make a few appearances at Double A Jacksonville before the Marlins stick him in their bullpen on July 23. Guillen, who frequently refers to Oviedo as “the guy with three names,” is looking forward to the addition.
Oviedo said Guillen can call him whatever he likes, just as long as it’s not Leo Nuñez.
“There’s no more Leo Nuñez,” he said.