ST. PETERSBURG -- Jose Fernandez blew a kiss toward the crowd cheering him behind the Marlins' dugout. Miami's right-hander left the field after the seventh inning on Thursday like a star actor awash in applause following a pleasing final act, this moment serving as a time when his teenage dream
ST. PETERSBURG -- Jose Fernandez blew a kiss toward the crowd cheering him behind the Marlins' dugout. Miami's right-hander left the field after the seventh inning on Thursday like a star actor awash in applause following a pleasing final act, this moment serving as a time when his teenage dream met adult reality.
Fernandez watched his first Major League game at Tropicana Field when he was a sophomore at Braulio Alonso High in Tampa, shortly after he arrived in the United States from his native Cuba to chase a better life. Now, here he was enjoying the fruits of his dominance in a 9-1 victory over the Rays, fresh off capping a one-run, six-hit and 12-strikeout clinic on quality pitching.
"This is a place that has a really special place in my heart," Fernandez said. "There's just something about pitching here. It's really special."
Before Thursday, Tropicana Field had been a site of struggle for Fernandez. He was 0-2 with a 5.79 ERA in two appearances against the Rays at the ballpark in 2013 and 2015. He failed to last beyond six innings and strike out more than nine both times.
Fernandez created a different ending for himself on Thursday in helping the Marlins claim their third victory over the Rays in four days. Tampa Bay threatened in the fourth with Miami holding a 5-1 lead, when Fernandez walked Tyler Motter with two outs to load the bases. But Fernandez forced Curt Casali to pop out in foul territory near the first-base line to escape damage.
"I think this is a tough place for him, just because of the emotion of Tampa and the whole thing," manager Don Mattingly said of Fernandez. "So this is a place where he has to kind of pull the reins back a little bit, and that's what we've been seeing the last, probably, three, four outings -- him being able to take the foot off the gas a little bit as [opposed to] having to be always at full speed."
Lately, Fernandez has been full-speed ahead. He claimed his sixth consecutive victory and his seventh in his past eight starts. He has allowed just one earned run in each of his last three appearances, with 43 strikeouts during that span. Fernandez, who struck out 13 in his season debut against the Tigers on April 6, joined the Red Sox's David Price and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw as the only pitchers in the Majors to reach 12 strikeouts twice this season.
As he revisited an emotional victory at a meaningful place for him, Fernandez's maturation was clear. He had lived a dream, and his chase to become the best he can be continues.
"I feel really confident with the work that I put in the offseason," Fernandez said. "I've been finishing so strong, and I'm pacing myself the way I should in the games. It's time for me to learn a little bit how to manage myself on the mound."
Andrew Astleford is a contributor for MLB.com.