Miami Marlins

Marlins ace Jose Fernandez piling up strikeouts but wants to limit pitch counts

Miami Marlins' Jose Fernandez pitches during the first inning against the San Francisco Giants at Marlins Park in Little Havana on Mon., Aug. 8, 2016.
Miami Marlins' Jose Fernandez pitches during the first inning against the San Francisco Giants at Marlins Park in Little Havana on Mon., Aug. 8, 2016. mocner@miamiherald.com

Jose Fernandez is on a strikeout binge of historical note.

Fernandez, who returns to the mound on Thursday night after receiving a mini midseason vacation, is on pace to finish with one of the highest strikeout rates in major-league history.

And get this: “I’m not even trying to strike people out,” Fernandez said.

You wouldn’t know it from his numbers.

Fernandez is averaging 12.94 strikeouts per nine innings.

If he maintains that figure, he will finish with the third-highest strikeout rate in big-league history among starting pitchers with at least 125 innings.

Only Randy Johnson in 2001 (13.41 K/9) and Pedro Martinez in 1999 (13.20) struck out hitters with greater frequency. Both pitchers are in the Hall of Fame.

Fernandez needs two more strikeouts to reach 200 for the season and 12 more to break Ryan Dempster’s single-season team record of 209, which was set in 2000.

“He’s going to hit a lot of milestones for the Marlins,” manager Don Mattingly said. “The longer he’s here, he’s going to keep hitting milestones.”

Fernandez said that when he first reached the majors, strikeouts were big to him.

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“I was just trying to prove everybody that I could strike people out, including myself,” Fernandez said.

But that’s no longer the case. Just the opposite.

In what is his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2014, Fernandez and the Marlins are trying to nurse him along so that he can last the entire season.

Twice they’ve skipped his turn in the rotation.

Numerous times they’ve lifted him from starts when his pitch counts begin to climb.

Constantly they’ve told him to pitch to contact in order to record quick outs and conserve his pitch counts.

“I’m trying to get quick outs so I can get back to the dugout and use less pitches,” he said.

“I’m trying to get early contact and get people out quick. I’ve got to prove to everybody that I can get people out on two or three pitches.”

With that goal in mind, Fernandez has made greater use of his changeup.

“It’s fine to strike people out,” Fernandez said. “Don’t get me wrong. But for some reason, I think I’m mixing [pitches] better, and I have a better game plan.”

And the strikeouts are coming at an even greater rate, as a result.

▪ With his triple in the ninth inning on Tuesday night, Ichiro Suzuki crossed another ballpark off his list. Great American Ball Park was the last major-league ballpark remaining in which he had not recorded a hit.

“My dreams have come true,” Ichiro said with obvious sarcasm.

Ichiro has played in 40 big-league ballparks — including the 30 that currently exist — and has at least one hit in each.

The only venue in which he doesn’t have a big-league hit: Fort Bragg, where the Marlins played in July.

Ichiro has had a rough go of it in Cincinnati. Counting Cinergy Field, he had gone just 2 for 23 in the Queen City entering Wednesday night.

Asked if he thought Pete Rose might have put a curse on him to keep him from piling up hits in Cincinnati, Ichiro quipped: “Of course, I think so.”

COMING UP

▪ Thursday: Marlins RHP Fernandez (12-6, 2.81 ERA) at Cincinnati Reds RHP Dan Straily (8-6, 3.75), 7:10 p.m., Great American Ball Park.

▪ Friday: Marlins RHP Tom Koehler (9-8, 3.86) at Pittsburgh Pirates RHP Gerrit Cole (7-8, 3.25), 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.

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