Jose Fernandez’s first game back following Tommy John surgery looked a lot like the games he dominated before it.
Throwing against Marlins minor-leaguers in an extended spring training game Monday morning, the 22-year-old right-hander pitched like the kid who won the National League’s Rookie of the Year award in 2013, striking out seven and registering as high 97 mph on the radar gun in three quick, no-hit innings of work.
More importantly, though, his arm felt great.
“It’s obviously always good to have good results, but I felt great,” said Fernandez, who will make his first official rehab start Saturday for the Single A Jupiter Hammerheads in Port Charlotte.
“I felt healthy and I felt like I belonged there on that mound. It was fun to go back out there and compete. It was a real game to me -- it wasn’t just a rehab start. I was walking out and felt that game feeling inside my stomach. That’s always great.”
Fernandez looked in midseason form. Most of his 42 pitches went for strikes, and many were of the nasty variety. He threw 16 pitches in the first inning, struck out one, walked one and then got two easy outs.
Then, Fernandez ended his day by striking out the final six hitters he faced, four with ugly swings and misses. He walked off the mound with a smile on his face and patted teammate Jarred Cosart on the backside with his glove.
“He looked great, man,” said Cosart, who also pitched Monday in his first rehab appearance since going on the disabled list with vertigo. “His stuff was good as usual. We pretty much expected similar to how [Mets ace Matt] Harvey came back [from Tommy John].
“Jose really didn’t look any different. The velocity is the same. The pitches are the same. Everything is the same. We’re excited. Hopefully he keeps progressing one step at a time and we get him back here pretty soon.”
The Marlins, off to a disappointing 20-31 start and 8 1/2 games back in the division, would obviously love to get Fernandez (16-8, 2.25 ERA in 36 career starts) back as soon as possible. Fernandez, Cosart, Mat Latos (knee) and Henderson Alvarez (shoulder) make up four-fifths of the team’s starting rotation and all are on the disabled list.
But Fernandez and Marlins rehab pitching coordinator Wayne Rosenthal reiterated Monday Fernandez’s return will not be rushed.
“You have to be careful hurrying up things,” Fernandez said. “Obviously I wanted to start opening day with them. But I think the main thing here — what the team wants and what I want — they want me healthy and they want me there for the rest of the year, not one or two starts. We’re just trying to follow the process and as soon as I can get there I will be.”
Rosenthal said Fernandez’s pitch count will be ramped up a little Saturday against the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor league squad. Then, Rosenthal said, Fernandez will throw six days later (June 12) in Jupiter against that same Port Charlotte team. What happens after that has not been determined.
“We have a program that [head trainer] Sean [Cunningham] setup,” Rosenthal said. “It’s not etched in stone where we’re going to follow it perfectly, but we’ll see how these two starts go and then go from there.”
Could Fernandez only make two rehab starts and then make his Marlins debut soon after?
“I would think he’s going to have more starts [in the minors],” Rosenthal said. “One, he’s got to go to a higher level. Two, he’s got to build up on pitches, pitch count and endurance.
“You want to try to get him -- especially after surgery -- probably to get him to six, seven innings just to say he can do it. When you get to the big leagues you want to be able to say you can go seven innings. If you go five and hope he can go seven, that’s not what you want after surgery.”
Still, on Monday Fernandez was mighty impressive. His fastball was clocked regularly between 94 and 97 miles per hour and his breaking balls also had plenty of bite. A month ago, when he pitched in his first rehab game Fernandez’s pitches were in the mid 80s.
Plus, it hasn’t been easy for Fernandez to sit around the clubhouse and watch the Marlins struggle.
“I think we’re just going to follow the process,” Fernandez said. “I’ve got to throw a couple more starts, and I think we’ll go from there. But today was a really good day. I’m actually trying to feel and think about everything that just happened -- the last three innings. But I feel great and just glad to be here, glad to be on the mound again.”
▪ Cosart pitched five innings and allowed one hit, one walk and struck out five over 60 pitches. He’s expected to pitch Friday for Jupiter and then will likely make one more rehab start before rejoining the big league team.
“He threw well,” Rosenthal said. “He kept his pitch count down. He threw strikes with his fastball, stayed relaxed. His curveball was around the plate. I like that he threw changeups. He’s ready to go.”