The last time Jose Fernandez walked out the doors of Petco Park in San Diego, he had an ominous feeling. The life was gone from the pitcher’s arm, and when he entered the clubhouse after giving up a grand slam with what would be his final pitch for 13 months, he turned to Marlins video coordinator Pat Shine and told him he was done.
“I told him, ‘Hey, it’s over. I’m not pitching no more this year,’ ” Fernandez said.
That was May 9, 2014. A few days later, doctors replaced the ligament in his right elbow — Tommy John surgery.
The feeling was altogether different Sunday when Fernandez left San Diego. His magical arm was strong, an arm that — in some ways — might be better than it was before.
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Fernandez returns to the mound Tuesday at Marlins Park to face the Nationals for what will be the fifth start since his comeback. If the first four are any indication, Fernandez is the same pitcher he was before, if not better, as difficult as that is to fathom.
Fernandez has gone 3-0 with a 2.77 ERA, one of the few bright spots on a Marlins season that has gone kaput.
His fastball velocity is the same as it was before.
His strikeout rate is close to the same, an average of 11 K’s per nine innings.
His control has been pinpoint. He has walked only three batters in 26 innings — an even lower walk rate than he averaged before surgery.
“I’m really happy to be where I am right now,” Fernandez said. “I walked up to the umpire the other day in Arizona, and I said, ‘You have no idea how blessed I am to be here.’ And he looked at me, kind of laughed, kind of smiled at me.
“You appreciate it so much when you’re away from it, and it wasn’t good for me to be away from it. Not at all.”
Although the success rate is high for Tommy John patients, not every pitcher returns as they were before. For some, it takes time to regain velocity.
For others, the sheer dominance is lacking.
Matt Harvey, the New York Mets’ young gun who came back this season from the surgery, is walking more hitters and giving up more home runs than before.
St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright’s earned-run average was a run-and-a-half higher during his first year back from Tommy John but gravitated back to the norm the two seasons after that.
It’s too soon to declare Fernandez the Fernandez of old — the National League Rookie of the Year in 2013 and runner-up for the Cy Young Award. Four starts is a small sample size on which to base a conclusion.
But Fernandez, who turns 23 on Friday, has demonstrated so far that he’s running on all cylinders. Two of his three wins have come at Marlins Park, where he’s 14-0, compared to 5-8 on the road.
“Sometimes I even feel like I pitch better on the road,” said Fernandez, who has a hard time explaining his astounding home record. “But, sometimes, the result is not there.”
Overall, though, Fernandez said his arm feels the same.
“The stuff is exactly the same,” he said.
There is also a part of Fernandez, though, that’s different.
“I don’t want to feel the same way that I felt before,” said Fernandez, who says he has matured as a pitcher, and person. “I think everything happens to you for a reason in life, and it’s up to you to learn from it.
“Obviously, I learned a lot from it. I think it’s made me a smarter pitcher.”
▪ Tuesday: Marlins RHP Jose Fernandez (3-0, 2.77) vs. Washington Nationals RHP Jordan Zimmermann (8-5, 3.30), 7:10 p.m., Marlins Park.
▪ Wednesday: Marlins RHP Tom Koehler (8-6, 3.16) vs. Washington Nationals RHP Doug Fister (3-6, 4.50), 7:10 p.m., Marlins Park.