Jose Fernandez never pitched in a playoff game for the Marlins. But his presence was felt in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday between the Houston Astros and New York Yankees.
Houston pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said he drew inspiration from Fernandez before recording the final out to send the Astros to the World Series. Just before facing Greg Bird with two outs in the ninth, McCullers told The New York Times that he paused briefly to think about Fernandez, who was his friend and offseason workout partner.
"I said, ‘Hey, show what you got, because Jose would,’ " McCullers said. "Dead serious. Stepped off the mound, looked down. You know, people you loved from your past, they’re never off your mind. They’re always there, in the back of it.”
McCullers then retired Bird on a fly ball to preserve the Astros’ 4-0 win over the Yankees.
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McCullers had known Fernandez from their high school days in Tampa, and the two remained friends after reaching the Majors. After Fernandez was killed in a boating accident in 2016, McCullers’ thoughts remained with the friend and pitcher he admired, even to the point of wearing custom-designed cleats bearing a photo image of Fernandez.
As he stood on the mound Saturday with a trip to the World Series on the line, McCullers said he thought of Fernandez more than once. The first instance came after he gave up a leadoff walk to the Yankees’ Todd Frazier in the eighth. The second came when he faced Bird in the ninth.
Said McCullers afterward: "This season wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I want to pitch well for Jose.’ It was more like, ‘I want to celebrate the way he loved the game, the way he played the game.’ I still love him, and I’m very sure he was watching."