Cuban phenoms face each other in Major League game for first time
MIAMI -- Big-time Cuban baseball came to Little Havana on Monday.
In the visiting dugout stood Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig, the bold and brash phenom that has taken the baseball world by storm. In the other dugout was Jose Fernandez, the confident but quiet young ace who is trying to revitalize baseball in Miami.
The stands were filled with fans who had circled the date of the showdown between the countrymen weeks ago.
Together, the young Cuban stars represent some of the best young players to ever come from the island, not to mention two of the top candidates for this year's National League Rookie of the Year Award.
Fernandez allowed two runs on four hits in six innings for the win in Miami's 6-2 victory in the first game of the four-game series. He struck out eight. Puig finished 0-for-5 with a pair of strikeouts but was cheered throughout the game. The two met before Monday's contest behind the batting cages and chatted like old friends.
"It was amazing because we talked like we knew each other forever," Fernandez said. "I knew we were going to be incredible friends. We talked about what we went through to get here and how we left Cuba. We used to live about 45 minutes away from each other."
It's clear the unusual pregame meeting marked the start of a friendship that's going to last a lifetime.
"First of all, as a person, he's a great guy," Fernandez said. "I was blessed to get know him as a friend, not as just a player I'm going against. He was humble. I know a lot of people would not think that, but he's amazing out there."
In the first at-bat between the two, Fernandez threw three four-seam fastballs in a row at 97, 99 and 98 mph to jump out to a 1-2 count. Puig fouled off an 83-mph curveball on the fourth pitch and popped out in foul territory on the fifth pitch, another 83-mph curveball.
The crowd cheered so loud it was hard to tell if they were cheering for Fernandez or for Puig. One thing became clear: Nobody was rooting against Fernandez.
"Wow, it was electric," Fernandez said. "The fans were awesome, and I hope they come out like that every night."
Cheers accompanied Puig when he stepped into the batter's box against Fernandez in third inning, but you could hear a pin drop by the time the young ace delivered his first pitch. But this time, the curveball coming in at 82 mph crossed the plate out of the strike zone. Fernandez's second pitch -- a 96-mph fastball -- was also called a ball, but the at-bat ended on the very next pitch when Puig grounded out to shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria on another curve.
Puig had only seen eight pitches but he was already 0-for-2 on the night. It was not what he expected. He already had an eventful afternoon.
Earlier in the day, Puig held court in front of reporters at a news conference. Some in attendance were still grumbling about some negative remarks attributed to the young outfielder.
"Me, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez, we are doing the best we can day to day, and that's why we have the record we have," Puig said. "I'm glad we are playing so well. We are all having fun, but when we get to the field, we focus on playing baseball."
There is no denying that Puig is a baseball player through and through. It's what he loves and it's what he loves to talk about when he is asked. Somebody asked him what it was like to have access to authentic Cuban food in Miami.
He answered with more baseball talk.
"I'm really happy to play in Miami. I live here now," Puig said. "I wanted to meet Fernandez, [Giancarlo] Stanton, Hechavarria. There are a lot of Cuban fans who were watching me on TV with the Dodgers and they can now see me play. I'm happy for that."
Puig just might love Dodgers fans as much as he loves baseball. He also made it no secret that he does not enjoy the extra media attention.
"Do I like the media? You guys drive me crazy," Puig said.
"That's the price of fame," one local reporter quipped.
"I didn't pay for the fame," Puig responded. "You guys are the ones giving me fame and driving me crazy trying to get things."
Fernandez also gave him fits Monday.
Puig's third at-bat in the fifth inning lasted only three pitches, but it might be the one fans remember the most. Three 97-mph fastballs can have that type of effect on a crowd. Puig swung and missed at the first and third pitches. The pitch was a called strike Puig didn't agree with. He would later shout words from the dugout. Teammate Juan Uribe tried to calm him down.
"I was just trying to be smart," Fernandez said. "In this game, I'm learning a little bit. It's not about throwing 110 mph. It's about making the pitches in the location. I thought that he might be looking for a breaking ball."
With Fernandez out of the game, the focus remained on Puig. A.J. Ramos struck him out on three pitches in the seventh inning, and Steve Cishek retired Puig to end the game.
"I'm very happy to see the Cuban community come out tonight to support Fernandez and me, and I hope they continue to come out and support the players," Puig said. "[Fernandez] is a tremendous pitcher. He mixes his pitches well. My teammates and I came prepared, but obviously, we didn't do too well today against him."