WASHINGTON -- Miguel Rojas knows the feeling all too well. It’s crushed him. It’s made him question a lot of things. It’s made him upset, frustrated, infuriated and confused.
Rojas is one of a few Marlins still with the club since pitching sensation Jose Fernandez died in a fatal boating accident in September 2016. There were tears then, and there are tears now for the Angels and the loved ones of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, who passed away Monday in Texas at age 27.
“For his whole family and the whole Angels organization, it’s going to be a tough time,” Rojas said Tuesday before the Marlins’ 3-2 loss to Washington Tuesday night at Nationals Park. “When stuff like that happens during the season -- we had an experience like that -- it’s really tough to overcome. But you need the strength of your teammates and the front office and the people who are in charge to get together. I know out of this experience they are going to get a special bond, so hopefully they can have the same bond that we had when it happened to us. All I can say is that they have to be together to overcome this.”
Marlins manager Don Mattingly said memories of the day Fernandez passed away -- the press conference, the conversations with his family, the inconsolable sorrow -- came flooding into his head the instant he heard the news about Skaggs.
“Can’t help it,” Mattingly said.
“We have a sense of what they’re going through, and really you just think about their families and what they’re going through right now. I don’t think there’s a playbook for how you go through it. You just try to get through the day.”
Every instance of grieving is different, Mattingly said, so he was hesitant to offer the Angels any advice for their situation. But the Marlins can relate to the reality of having to grieve in front of a national audience, and they can relate to having to resume their jobs without one of their co-workers in the office the next day.
“It’s going to be really tough for them, because -- I know it happened on the road -- as soon as you get back to your clubhouse you walk by his locker,” Rojas said. “When you get the opportunity to see his family again, when you get the opportunity to jump on the same field you used to play [on] with him, it’s going to be tough. So that’s why all the players there, they have to have each other’s back. And sometimes it’s going to be one player more affected than others. And then that same player who has been grieving the friend is going to be the one affected. [There’s] going to be time where they are going to be down, but there are times where they are going to find strength on thinking about him, thinking about how good he was, thinking about how good he was with the community. They’re going to overcome, but it’s going to take time.”
The hardships have been twofold for Rojas. He took part in winter ball in his home Venezuela this past summer. Rojas played on the same field as the late Luis Valbuena and Jose Castillo just days before they passed away from a car accident.
“And still now I think I am going to go back to Venezuela, and I am going to see them again,” Rojas said.
But if there’s anything Rojas has learned, it’s that there is, indeed, a light at the end of the tunnel.
“My advice is to stay together, stay strong during this tough moment, because you’re going to find something better at the end of the road,” he said.
For Rojas, it took him a year to fully accept losing Fernandez -- even if his teammate’s passing still doesn’t make sense to him. What helped was, after enough time, taking over Fernandez’s locker as a way to stay connected with his late friend.
What also helps are the messages like the one Giancarlo Stanton -- also a Marlin in 2016 -- posted on Instagram in the wake of Skaggs’ passing.
“My message to the Angels, while having no time for yourself to grieve, is to hug each other, laugh, cry, lift the ones taking it extra hard up,” Stanton wrote.
Those kinds of reminders that you’re not alone are important, Rojas said, and he wants to make clear to the Angels that they aren’t.
“They have to stay together, and they have to be strong at this moment because sometimes you are going to wonder why it happened, and why it happens to me and to this organization,” he said. “But at the same time, you are going to find something special that is going to be the strength that is going to get you through it. You are going to overcome that and become stronger.”
Smith back on the road
Left-hander Caleb Smith made his first appearance back on the road with the Marlins on Tuesday as he nears a return from the injured list with left hip inflammation.
Mattingly said he and his staff are still trying to pinpoint the best time for Smith to rejoin the Marlins' rotation, and he is undecided if that will come before or after the All-Star break.
“We’ll keep talking exactly where we are going to fit him in,” Mattingly said. “As soon as we know exactly where, then we’ll be able to talk with you more about it. We’re making plans, and he’s in the fold.”
Smith was recently deployed on a two-game rehab stint with Triple-A Jacksonville. There, he gave up six earned runs across 9 1/3 innings, striking out 19 and walking two.
Now all that’s left is finishing to build arm strength and work on his pitch count.
“Sounds like he’s worked his way back to health,” Mattingly said. “Basically build up, he’s been healthy for both of those [rehab] starts. We’ll move forward from here.”