Miami Marlins

A tantalizing clash of pitching titans is on tap Friday at Marlins Park

Two of the National League’s top strikeout pitchers, Jose Fernandez, left, and Clayton Kershaw will face off on Friday at Marlins Park when the Los Angeles Dodgers visit the Miami Marlins.
Two of the National League’s top strikeout pitchers, Jose Fernandez, left, and Clayton Kershaw will face off on Friday at Marlins Park when the Los Angeles Dodgers visit the Miami Marlins.

As one of the few humans on earth who has played behind both Jose Fernandez and Clayton Kershaw, utility infielder Miguel Rojas of the Marlins tells people there are no two better pitchers.

“I’ve told everybody,” Rojas said, “they are the best lefty in the game and the best righty.”

Kershaw and Fernandez.

At Marlins Park on Friday night, the two aces — Kershaw of the Dodgers and Fernandez of the Marlins — will square off for the first time in a marquee matchup that has blockbuster written all over it.

“I was hoping that this was going to be the wild-card matchup, that’s what I was hoping for,” ESPN baseball analyst Jim Bowden said. “That would have been a tremendous matchup.”

It still is, but under circumstances that diminish some of the luster.

The reeling Marlins are gasping for life in the wild-card race, hooked up to a respirator with an extremely poor prognosis. Their only prayer is a miracle.

The first-place Dodgers, meanwhile, have taken command in the National League West, and they’ve made their second-half charge without Kershaw, who has spent the past nine weeks on the disabled list with a herniated disk.

This will be his first outing since June 26. As a result, he is not expected to pitch more than four or five innings as the Dodgers ratchet him up for the playoffs.

But even a taste of wine is better than no sip at all.

One Major League scout, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said there’s only one other pitching matchup he’d rather see.

“I’d like to see Kershaw against Kershaw,” the scout said. “I’d like to see Clayton Kershaw of 2015 face Kershaw of 2016 and see which guy would win. That would be the best matchup because there’s nobody in his class right now.”

Over the past five years, Kershaw won the Cy Young Award as the National League’s best pitcher three times, with one second and one third-place finish. With an 11-2 record and 1.79 ERA, he was angling toward another Cy Young until injury stalled the attempt.

“Clayton Kershaw is still in his prime, and he has been for six straight years,” the scout said. “That’s amazing.”

Then there is the brash Fernandez, who is four years Kershaw’s junior and lacks his full body of work. Fernandez, 24, has won 90 fewer games than Kershaw, 28, and has yet to throw a complete game. Kershaw has thrown three shutouts this season alone and 15 in his career.

But few deny that Fernandez’s “stuff” is on par with Kershaw’s.

“It’s the most electric stuff — more electric than Kershaw at certain times,” the scout said. “Kershaw just has more experience and a better game-day selection of pitches than Jose does at this point, and that comes with experience.”

Fernandez said he admires Kershaw.

“Probably one of the best in the game,” Fernandez said. “There’s no question about that.”

But when asked what one pitch of his that he would trade for one of Kershaw’s, Fernandez refused to yield. He wouldn’t trade a thing in terms of the pitches each brings to the table.

“I’m very satisfied with my stuff,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez is averaging 12.57 strikeouts per nine innings this season, a staggering rate that, if it were to continue, would rank as the fourth-best strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio in big-league history. Among starting pitchers, only Randy Johnson (13.41 in 2001), Pedro Martinez (13.20 in 1999) and Kerry Wood (12.58 in 1998) rank higher.

Then there is Fernandez’s close-to-invincible record at Marlins Park, where he has gone 27-2 with a 1.57 ERA over his career.

“Jose’s my second-favorite pitcher in baseball, period,” the scout said. “I would pay to see Jose Fernandez pitch every one of his starts. He might strike out 15 and hit a homer. He does not like to lose. He roots for his teammates as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Beyond the black-and-white statistics, Rojas said Kershaw and Fernandez are similar in ways that fans might not notice. Hitters, when they make contact, are less likely to put the barrel on the ball when the two are pitching.

“When I play shortstop, I see a lot of balls that are hit hard to me,” said Rojas, who was with the Dodgers in 2014 before being traded to the Marlins. “But when those guys pitch, the ground balls are softer. Their off-speed pitches are so incredible. For me, it’s a blessing to play behind Kershaw and Fernandez.”

Fernandez vs. Kershaw on Friday might lack the high drama of a one-game, winner-take-all wild-card playoff showdown that Bowden was imagining a month ago.

But there are far worse ways to spend a Friday.

“Unfortuantely, this particular matchup isn’t what we all wanted to see,” Bowden said of a postseason clash between the two. “But I think for the first four innings, it’s going to be fun.”


▪ Friday: Marlins RHP Fernandez (13-8, 3.03 ERA) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers LHP Kershaw (11-2, 1.79), 7:10 p.m., Marlins Park.

▪ Saturday: Marlins RHP Tom Koehler (9-10, 3.87) vs. Dodgers LHP Rich Hill (11-3, 1.94), 7:10 p.m., Marlins Park.