Jose Fernandez said his breaking ball was “horrible” as he was warming up in the bullpen.
It definitely made a quick recovery.
Facing a Braves lineup he beat in the final start of his Rookie of the Year season last September, Fernandez put on another one of his clinics Tuesday night.
The 21-year-old Cuban right-hander equaled a career high with 14 strikeouts on 109 pitches and tossed eight scoreless innings, putting an end to the Marlins’ franchise-worst 0-7 start on the road with a 1-0 victory at Turner Field.
“In general, I think it’s tough to hit his breaking pitches,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “I heard a couple guys, [Dan] Uggla for one, saying ‘Man it starts on the inside corner and keeps going on the outside corner.’
“When your curveball is working that well, it’s tough to get comfortable in there. Then you back it up with 98, 99. At the end of the day, that’s tough to hit.”
The first-place Braves (13-7) produced only three hits off Fernandez — a leadoff single by Jason Heyward in the first, and a pair of singles by Chris Johnson and Andrelton Simmons in the eighth. If not for those last two hits and a pitch count that finally eclipsed 100, Marlins manager Mike Redmond said he would have had an agonizing decision to make in the ninth.
Instead, closer Steve Cishek pitched a 1-2-3 ninth against the top of the Braves order to extend his club record to 33 consecutive saves.
Fernandez, who has never pitched past the eighth inning in his 33 career starts, naturally wanted the ball in the ninth. But he didn’t fuss.
“In the heat of the moment I wanted to go out there,” said Fernandez, who didn’t walk a batter — the third time he has done that this season. “But I think [Redmond] saw something. So why not put our closer in the game? He’s one of the best in the game.”
Tuesday’s performance was the sixth time in Fernandez’s career he has produced double-digit strikeouts, the third time he has pitched eight innings and allowed three or fewer hits, and the ninth time in his career he has thrown at least six innings without giving up a run.
“He pitched great, gave us exactly what we needed after a tough loss last night,” Redmond said. “I felt like Jose, early on in that game, he had it. He had it going. You could see by their swings he was on tonight. I felt like early on one run would hold up. At the same time, too, these guys have the ability to hit some home runs and you never know. One swing could change the course of that game. Jose did a great job. He kept them off balance, changed his patterns up and was tremendous.”
Of his 14 strikeouts, 11 came via the breaking ball. Redmond said the Marlins have told Fernandez not to use it too early in games. But against the Braves, a very good, fastball-hitting team, it was the perfect pitch to use.
“He was able to throw his breaking ball on a lot of fastball counts and got a lot of swings on it and a lot of strikeouts,” Redmond said. “Really both pitchers were on. Fortunately for us, we were able to get a run. But it was a fun game.”
Braves starter Alex Wood struck out a career-high 11. But in the fourth, he gave up a one-out double to Giancarlo Stanton, who ended an 0-for-12 slide since his game-winning grand slam last Friday against the Mariners. Moments later, Casey McGehee sent a hard ground ball to the right of Uggla at second base, scoring the only run Fernandez would need.
“The way he was throwing, you knew it wasn’t going to take a whole lot,” McGehee said. “From where I was [at third base], it looked like he had pretty good stuff. But you know, we’ve been in a lot of close games on the road, so you never know. You always want more. Jose pitched a great game, and Cishek came in and did exactly what you want your closer to do: Never let them up for air and get us in and out of there quick.”
The Marlins haven’t announced a corresponding move yet, but it’s expected right-hander Carter Capps, acquired in the Logan Morrison trade with Seattle, will be brought up. He is 0-1 with a 1.64 ERA in seven appearances for New Orleans.