Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Marlins’ Jose Fernandez reminds us why we missed him in triumphant comeback

Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez (16) hugs family members after a baseball game in against the San Francisco Giants in Miami, Thursday, July 2, 2015. The Marlins won 5-4.
Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez (16) hugs family members after a baseball game in against the San Francisco Giants in Miami, Thursday, July 2, 2015. The Marlins won 5-4. AP

A Cuban-born young man who risked everything to find his freedom and future in the United States makes his long-awaited baseball comeback in the embrace of multicultural Miami. How’s that for a nice little slice of new-age Americana to kick off your long Fourth of July weekend?

Any doubt the U.S. still is the land of opportunity? Ask Jose Fernandez, who is living the dream – a dream delayed more than a year, until Thursday afternoon here. It was a special day for Miami as Marlins Park bounced with 32,598 fans, many of them bright-shirted summer-camp kids who lent a shrill excitement to the pitch of the crowd as a city welcomed back its adopted son.

“Jose Day” was well timed, and needed nourishment.

He was the winning pitcher in Miami’s 5-4 matinee victory over the San Francisco Giants, shaking early and not great overall (for him) but still striking out six with no walks in six innings. There was an “I’m back” moment in the first inning when his fastball reached 99 mph on a called third strike and he pumped his fist at the din of the fans’ roar, and at his family seated near the dugout.

Did I mention Fernandez also hit a home run?

“Thinks he’s a hitter first,” deadpanned manager Dan Jennings.

Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez speaks to the media after his first start in more than a year following Tommy John surgery. Video by Manny Navarro / Miami Herald Staff

Emotion enveloped Fernandez as the game began. His chest heaved as he gathered himself on the mound. It had been a long time, all building to this. His mother wept as he readied his first pitch.

“’It’s actually here. It’s right now,’” he later described his thoughts at that moment. “Life gave me another chance to do what I love. I almost teared up.”

We were reminded once again how much more Fernandez brings than just high heat. He brings adrenaline. He is an electrified cable jumping on the mound. His passion is palpable, and it is contagious. He brings hope. He can lift a team, a city. Maybe a season?

“The energy he brings to our clubhouse,” said Jennings. “And in the ballpark.”

Marlins fans needed this. Miami did.

The season nearing its midpoint has been a disappointment so far to Marlins fans unfortunately too accustomed to that state. The losing record, the strange managerial change that hasn’t seemed to work and now the injury that shelves star slugger Giancarlo Stanton all have served to crush the high hopes of spring.

From a broader view Miami sports fans in general are anxious these days as the Heat’s Dwyane Wade weighs whether to stay or leave for another team.

The return of Fernandez, after an elbow injury and recovery from Tommy John surgery had sidelined him for 419 days, was just what was needed. It brings new hope. Even missing a year, Fernandez still is just getting started, not turning 23 ‘til July 31.

It may be almost time to give up on this season in terms of playoff hopes, unless the current three-game win streak is a spark that catches. But it is not time to give up on the idea the Marlins have a promising future – not when Fernandez and Stanton both are healthy and the hub of it. Bullpen help, better luck with injuries and a veteran, proven big-league manager who actually is a big-league manager are essential upgrades looking ahead to 2016, but it all starts with a healthy Stanton and with the kid whose return to the mound Thursday instantly reinvigorated everything.

Fernandez had a shaky first inning and later gave up a home run but had his velocity and location and threw 68 strikes among his 89 pitches.

That’s him sort of struggling, I guess. That’s how good he is. Fernandez was not Jose-great – can we forgive a man some nerves and rust after almost 14 months away? – but him not at his best still is very good. When he pitches, Miami has a great chance. He is RTW-quality: Reason To Watch.

Fernandez especially is magical in the new home ballyard, now 13-0 with a 1.23 ERA – crazy numbers – in the bosom of Little Havana. Miami is 18-3 at Marlins Park in games Jose starts.

Something about him on the mound lifts everything. Instills belief.

Marlins manager Dan Jennings discusses his team's 5-4 victory and three-game sweep over the world champion San Francisco Giants on Thursday, July 2, 2015. Video by Manny Navarro / Miami Herald Staff

How many times have Marlins fans seen their team’s bats wither this season?

This time, though, Miami came from behind, as if refusing to allow Fernandez to not be victorious in his comeback game.

Justin Bour lumbers to the plate looking like the oversized farmboy who steps off a tractor, is handed a bat for the first time in his life, and (still wearing his straw hat) hits the first pitch clear over the cornfield as the scouts look at each other drop-jawed.

He’d been the home run hero the game before, too, with a ninth-inning walk-off shot. Thursday’s 413-foot no-doubt Bour blast to right was the three-run stroke that turned Fernandez’s comeback game right-side up, gave it the proper ending.

Yes, and how many times have Marlins fans seen their team’s bullpen fizzle and fail?

This time, though, three relievers combined to protect the lead Fernandez left them, with A.J. Ramos getting the save.

Fernandez slapped the padded dugout rail with both hands and screamed into the swell of cheering as the game ended.

Nerves and adrenaline had awakened him at 6 a.m. Thursday.

“I’m ready to go to sleep,” he said afterward.

The right arm wasn’t tired, though.

Asked how it felt, Jose Fernandez flashed the smile we’ve missed, and said, “I wish I could pitch tomorrow!”

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