For the first time since walking off the mound May 9 in San Diego with an injured arm, Jose Fernandez stepped back on the rubber Sunday to throw a baseball.
He punctuated his wait of 291 days by zipping 15 fastballs into the mitt of Marlins bullpen catcher Jeff Urgelles as his parents, grandmother and girlfriend looked on.
“I was a little nervous,” Fernandez admitted. “After almost 9 1/2 months getting on the mound again, it feels great. That’s where I belong, and that’s what I love to do.”
The 22-year-old hurler, the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2013, isn’t expected to pitch in a regular-season game for the Marlins until mid-June to mid-July.
But Sunday’s long-anticipated trial run was a another milestone moment for Fernandez on his comeback from Tommy John surgery.
“He was probably more nervous than his first [major league] start against the Mets,” said pitching coach Chuck Hernandez. “I could just see the excitement level.”
For Fernandez, Sunday marked the first time he threw a pitch off a mound since the Padres’ Jedd Gyorko tagged him for a grand slam at Petco Park. Exactly one week later, Fernandez underwent elbow ligament-replacement surgery in Los Angeles.
Fernandez had been throwing off flat ground for the past five months.
But there is still a long road again. As long as there are no setbacks, he’ll continue to go slow as he works his arm back to full strength. He is scheduled to throw two bullpen sessions a week for the time being, after which the Marlins will send him out on minor-league rehab assignments to prepare for his midsummer return.
“There are still a lot of days ahead,” Fernandez said.
Said Hernandez: “Our biggest job will be to keep the governor on him because he feels good. He understands that. He knows where he’s at. He’s not in a big rush, he’s not wearing me out about talking [that he’s] ready to pitch anytime sooner than we scheduled. He’s going to go through the process and do it right.”
Sunday’s performance impressed observers, though.
Even though Fernandez said he was only throwing at 50-55 percent of his top velocity, his delivery was easy and the ball still popped the catcher’s mitt.
“The amount of strikes he was throwing was the most impressive part of it all,” Urgelles said. “It was easy. Had a little extra zip behind it. He had that game face.”
Even though he recently began throwing breaking balls off flat ground, he was restricted to fastballs only on Sunday.
“It feels really, really normal,” Fernandez said. “It feels like I’ve been up there for a long time. The strike zone was there. The location was there, in and out, right down the middle with the fastball. It was just like riding a bike.”
Fernandez was especially pleased that family members were on hand to watch.
“They’ve been there with me since day one,” Fernandez said. “They’ve seen the sad part of me. They’ve seen the worried part of me. They’ve been worried. They’ve been sad. I’m grateful to have them here.”
Hernandez said he’s confident Fernandez will return to ace status.
“He’s on track to do all the things he wants,” Hernandez said. “He just can’t speed up the timetable. That’s all.”
▪ Brad Hand will get the start Monday at 1:05 p.m. at Roger Dean Stadium when the Marlins face FIU in the Marlins’ first exhibition.
On Tuesday, Jose Urena will get the start when the Marlins face the University of Miami.
▪ Dan Haren will make the first Grapefruit League start for the Marlins when they face the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday at Roger Dean Stadium.