Jordan Yamamoto crouched in front of the pitcher’s mound at Marlins Park, facing toward center field, and soaked in the moment.
This is it. Yamamoto — 23 years old, part-time team barber and full-time starting pitcher — was minutes from making his Major League Baseball debut against the St. Louis Cardinals.
His journey that began in Pearl City, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu and continued for 5 1/2 years in the minor leagues, culminated in this moment. He had spent the past 18 months with the Marlins after being acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers as one of four prospects in the Christian Yelich trade.
“I was really nervous,” Yamamoto said.
His first pitch: an 89-mph fastball to Matt Carpenter that nibbled at the upper-left corner of the strike zone. Called strike. Three pitches later, he had Carpenter fly out to center field.
He was out of the first inning after eight pitches. Seven innings later, he finished his debut without giving up a run as the Marlins went on to defeat the Cardinals 9-0 — one of just two wins by the Marlins during their nine-game homestead.
“I was sweating all day,” Yamamoto said, “but once I got that first guy out, it all kind of calmed down and was like ‘OK. Let’s go.’”
Now comes the real question: Can Yamamoto follow up his stellar debut with another quality performance? He will get that chance Tuesday in St. Louis against the same Cardinals team he shut out just six days earlier.
“This is definitely something,” Yamamoto said. “It was so surreal. You just enjoy the moment, enjoy the ride and enjoy everybody cheering you on.”
‘You’re heading to Miami’
One day before his debut, Yamamoto was boarding the team bus for the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, the Marlins’ Double A affiliate, and reading a scouting report on the Birmingham Barons, the Chicago White Sox’s affiliate. He was game-planning for how to shut down Luis Robert, one the Barons’ top offensive player.
And then Jumbo Shrimp manager Kevin Randel stepped onto the bus.
“Hey guys, we have a luggage capacity. If you guys don’t need everything on the bus, take it off,” Randel told the team. “For example, Yamamoto, you need to take your barber stuff off the bus. We don’t need that.”
His teammates began clamoring “No. No. We need it.” Yamamoto, after all, has been the team’s unofficial barber since he arrived after teaching himself how to properly cut hair during the past few years.
Yamamoto, more subtly, asked “OK. What do I do?”
Randel’s stern reply: “Take it off the bus. You’re heading to Miami.’
“I erupted into tears,” said Yamamoto, who had a 3.58 ERA over 65 1/3 innings with 64 strikeouts this year with the Jumbo Shrimp before the announcement. “I couldn’t speak. I just could not do anything but cry.”
Once he collected himself, Yamamoto made his journey down the state. He drove from Jacksonville to the Marlins’ training facility in Jupiter on Tuesday and spent the night there before making his way to Miami on Wednesday.
“I’m not worried about not getting any sleep,” Yamamoto said, “because I wasn’t going to sleep anyway.”
But Yamamoto’s drive was nothing compared to the trek his family had to make to get to Marlins Park before first pitch on Wednesday.
Shortly after finding out he was making his MLB debut, Yamamoto called his parents — Larry and Candi.
“Get on a flight,” Yamamoto told them.
His mom was concerned about the cost.
“I’m like, ‘Mom. I don’t care. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,’ ” Yamamoto said. “‘Here’s my card. Go do what you’ve got to do to get out here.’”
The itinerary included a pair of layovers in Los Angeles and Houston before they finally touched down in Miami around 11 a.m. after about 14 hours of traveling.
But they made it.
And they watched their son become just the third pitcher in Marlins history to throw seven shutout innings in his debut.
‘A tough look’
Yamamoto isn’t going to dazzle with a hard-throwing fastball. He maxed out at about 94 mph on Wednesday.
What he will do, though, is effectively mix speeds and command a four-pitch repertoire.
Yamamoto finished his first start after throwing 95 pitches, 61 of which went for strikes. His fastball topped out at 93.9 mph, and he effectively mixed in a cutter that stayed between 84 and 88 mph, a slider that went from 76 to 88 mph, a curveball that stayed steadily in the mid 70s and a low 80s changeup.
“He’s a tough look,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “You don’t really see guys like him anymore. I’m sure if he goes to a tryout and scouts are looking at him, you’re probably not signing this guy. … There are a few guys out there that can do it, but there aren’t many. He just mixes and mixes and matches.”