Miami Marlins phenom pitcher Jose Fernandez to be front and center on Opening Night

On Monday night, Jose Fernandez will become the youngest National League pitcher to make an Opening Day start since Dwight Gooden in 1985.

03/31/2014 12:00 AM

07/31/2014 5:15 PM

Across the state in St. Petersburg, 39-year-old knuckleball pitcher R. A. Dickey will toe the rubber for Toronto. Halfway across the country in Texas, 35-year-old Cliff Lee has the honors for Philadelphia. And all the way out in Southern California, 31-year-old Jered Weaver takes the mound for the Los Angeles Angels.

They’re all geezers.

They are, at least, compared to the pitcher the Marlins will be sending to the mound on Monday for Opening Night at Marlins Park.

When 21-year-old phenom Jose Fernandez fires the first pitch for the Marlins shortly after 7:10 p.m., he will become the youngest National League pitcher to make an Opening Day start since Dwight Gooden in 1985.

Fernandez acknowledged he’ll likely be dealing with butterflies beforehand. Heck, Fernandez even confessed he had trouble falling asleep on the nights before his spring training starts.

But a regular-season game, and the very first one at that?

He figures nerves will be an issue for about, oh, the time it takes one of his 95-mile-per-hour fastballs to travel 60 feet 6 inches — the distance from the mound to home plate.

“When they say ‘Play ball!’ and I throw the first pitch, that’ll be it,” he said.

Fernandez, the reigning Rookie of the Year and the unofficial face of the franchise, is pumped for the opener, and not just because he will be pitching in a real game for the first time since Sept. 11.

That was the night when he not only defeated the Braves but honked them off as well when he took his sweet little time admiring his first major-league home run. After that game, as a precautionary measure to protect his golden arm for the future, the Marlins shut Fernandez down for the season.

So Fernandez is eager to resume dealing and making big-league batters look bad.

But he’s also anxious about the outing because it will mark the first time since he was 14 that his grandmother will see him pitch in person.

Olga Fernandez — direct from Cuba — will be on hand.

“My grandma saw me throw yesterday in the bullpen,” Fernandez said Saturday in Tampa, where the Marlins closed out their spring training schedule on Friday. “She’s never seen me throw [as a big-leaguer], ever. She’s going to be here the whole year.”

And that has him fired up, too. Not that Fernandez needs any extra incentives to get his juices flowing. The other day, in the process of meeting Derek Jeter for the first time and having him sign a baseball, the Yankees shortstop gave the kid a bit of advice that resonated with Fernandez.

Jeter told Fernandez to “never be satisfied.”

Don’t get lazy, in other words. Don’t take the game for granted.

“Sometimes you think you’re in the big leagues and think, ‘All right, I’m already on the team. I don’t want to get hurt,’ ” Fernandez said. “And then you lose that competitiveness. I can’t lose that. I can’t change the way I play.”

Fernandez also said he’ll maintain his enthusiasm, which he doesn’t keep hidden. He’ll play with emotion, just as he did as a rookie when he was animated on the field and in the dugout.

“That’s the way my family taught me and the way my coaches in Cuba taught me,” Fernandez said. “If I change that, I’m not being faithful to them. Baseball to me is fun. I don’t see it as I got to go out there and work. No, I’m not working. I’m playing a game.”

And playing, after all, is something kids do. Fernandez is still a kid relative to his peers.

The average age of the 30 Opening Day starters is 28.7 years. The second-youngest pitcher making a start in a season opener is Atlanta’s Julio Teheran. He is two years older than Fernandez.

At 21, Fernandez is less than half the age Charlie Hough was when, at the baseball ripe old age of 45, he threw the first pitch in Marlins history in 1993 — when Fernandez was but nine months old.

Fernandez was so dominant in 2013 that it often seemed the roles were reversed, that he was a man among boys. He knows the game might not come as easily in Year 2 as it did last season, knows that opponents — working on scouting reports — will be trying to exploit his weaknesses. That is, should they discover any.

He knows that every eye in the house will be on him when he rears back and delivers his first pitch Monday.

“Obviously, I’ve got a lot more pressure on me this year,” Fernandez said. “There’s expectations. Last year, there were no expectations.”

Last year, at least for the first couple of months, Fernandez could go about life inconspicuously. No more.

On Friday, after shagging fly balls during batting practice, he began to trot back to the clubhouse before some fans asked him to sign autographs. Fernandez stood in foul territory, next to the stands, and fulfilled every last autograph request.

“I signed for like 1,000 people,” he said. “I was signing for an hour.”

The expectations are greater, and so are the demands that come with them. Fernandez doesn’t want to lose his hunger, his edge.

“At the end of the day, we’re all the same,” he said. “I’m not better than anybody else. That’s the way I try to see it, making sure I keep my head in line and making sure I know who I am and where I came from.

“Sometimes you do good, and sometimes you get your [butt] kicked. I’m just excited for every fifth day to get a chance to go out there.”

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