ATLANTA -- As the late José Fernández neared the end of his 2013 National League Rookie of the Year Award-winning season, he turned to his new 17-year-old friend, Touki Toussaint, and said, “It’s your turn.”
Fernandez was issuing a challenge as Toussaint was entering his senior season at Coral Springs Christian Academy and prepping for the 2014 MLB Draft, where the D-backs eventually selected him with the 16th overall pick.
But seven years later, these words once again have meaning for Toussaint, who is taking advantage of the chance to prove himself as a Major League starter. The Braves right-hander will take the mound at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday at 7:05 p.m. ET, live on MLB.TV, and attempt to build upon last week’s entertaining nine-strikeout performance.
“I feel like I’m a very high-level competitor,” Toussaint said. “If that opportunity is there, I’m going to keep taking it.”
Toussaint has taken advantage of the opportunity to fill the rotation spot that opened when Mike Foltynewicz was designated for assignment on July 27. The 24-year-old hurler showed his tremendous potential on Thursday, when he retired 18 of the first 20 batters faced and recorded a career-best nine strikeouts with a curveball that might have even impressed Fernández.
Of the 26 curveballs Toussaint threw against the Blue Jays, six resulted in a called strike and seven induced a swing-and-miss. This marked just one of 37 outings, dating back to the start of 2019, in which a pitcher threw at least 25 curveballs and recorded either a swing-and-miss or a called strike with at least 50 percent of those pitches.
Toussaint has accounted for two of those instances. The previous was when he recorded six strikeouts and three walks while allowing the Marlins one run over four relief innings on May 3, 2019. Command issues kept him at the Triple-A level most of last year.
So while the big strikeout total was impressive, the more encouraging development might have been the fact that Toussaint didn’t issue a walk while recording a strike with 59 of the 83 pitches he threw.
“I just feel like I attacked and made them put the ball in play,” Toussaint said. “I didn’t really mess around with too many hitters. I just got after them.”
This more aggressive approach would have been the kind taught by Fernández, who befriended Toussaint when the two were getting their hair cut by Hugo “Juice” Tandron, the well-known barber who set up shop at Marlins Park on game days.
A family friend gave Toussaint access to the stadium.
“I sat there and just talked to [Fernández] for about three or four hours before he went to get ready,” Tousssaint said. “After that, it just kicked off. I’d go to all of the batting practices and talk to him.”
After helping the Class A Rome Braves win the 2016 South Atlantic League championship, Toussaint returned to Miami. He was awoken during the early hours of Sept. 25, 2016, to learn Fernández had been killed in a boating accident.
“Honestly, I was in disbelief,” Toussaint said. “It was a hard thing to swallow.”
Four years later, Fernández's “It’s your turn” challenge still applies to Toussaint, whose motivation was enhanced last week when Braves ace Mike Soroka was lost for the season with a torn right Achilles tendon.
“He went down and you could feel the vibes,” Toussaint said. “Everyone was like, 'I have to step up now,' and this is my opportunity to step up.”