Baseball / Sports

Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, left, and Marlins catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia run during spring training at Roger Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., on Monday, Feb. 17, 2014. (Hector Gabino/El Nuevo Herald/MCT)

Marlins' Fernandez on (bike) path to success

JUPITER, Fla. -- The rookie of the year didn't rest on his laurels this winter.

Rest? Jose Fernandez didn't stop pedaling. He was too busy staging his own Tour de Tampa.

The kid who jumped from Class A to not only win the National League rookie award but also finish third in Cy Young Award voting for best pitcher in a superlative debut season with the Miami Marlins, sounds every bit the kid as he talks about the love affair with his bike.

The Specialized S-Works Venge racer that was the centerpiece in his offseason conditioning is his profile picture on Twitter. One of his tweets, a close-up of the digital readout from his Garmin, tells the tale of a memorable day in the saddle: 114 miles covered in 6 hours, 24 minutes and 51 seconds.

"It weighs almost 15 pounds," Fernandez said of the ultra-light, high-tech bike that costs $9,000-$10,000 tricked out as his is. "A couple of times I did more than 100 miles in a day. The most was 124."

Fernandez wasn't just tooling around soaking up sun and fresh air. Riding in a peloton that typically contained at least 50 serious cycling enthusiasts and grew to as many as 200 on some weekend rides, he maintained a frenetic pace for nearly 600 miles a week.

It was a concerted effort by the 21-year-old to build strength and endurance to aid in improving on the 12-6 record and 2.19 ERA he posted in 2013.

"On the bike you can do intervals. You go hard and then slow down. It's kind of like an inning, is the way I see it. I'm going really hard for 10, 12 minutes and then I slow down for 5 or 6 minutes," he said. "Conditioning-wise, it's amazing. I'm glad that I did it. Let's see how it's going to work out this year. I'm not sure, but I feel really good."

The measure of how far Fernandez has traveled in the past year, through an eye-opening 172 2/3 innings and hundreds of miles on the bike, is a symbolic 10 feet. That is the distance between the locker he occupied Sunday as the Marlins opened spring training and the one directly opposite where he dressed a year ago in the row of temporary lockers assigned to prospects in their first camp.

Among his locker mates last spring were Christian Yelich, now the starting left fielder, and Jake Marisnick, who is competing for the center field job.

Fernandez, who was expected to begin last season in Double-A ball before injuries created an opportunity for a monumental jump, is now the unquestioned ace of a young and talented starting rotation.

He acknowledged that his success has brought changes, such as the rock-star treatment he received from fans who swarmed around him at Saturday's Winter Warm-Up at Marlins Park. But the child-like joy of being in the big leagues that marked his memorable rookie season, as much as the 9-0 home record and 187 strikeouts, remains.

He stayed an extra hour and a half Saturday to make sure all the fans who lined up got the autograph and photo they sought. And Sunday he snapped his own photo of his name above his locker in the row with the regulars.

"I love the fans. I'm having a good time," he said, adding that he is honored the Marlins are promoting a section in left field as Jose's Heroes. "It's going to be really special. We were doing a (TV) commercial about that. I like it."

Fernandez also enjoyed the reactions of surprise from fellow riders during breaks when he'd remove his helmet and they'd discover a sports celebrity in their midst. That wouldn't have happened a year ago.

As the months passed, they would have noticed a slimmer Fernandez as he trimmed down to a well-proportioned 215 pounds after playing at closer to 240 last year.

Marlins pitching coach Chuck Hernandez isn't concerned about his young pitcher's readiness for the Tour de France, but said the training regimen should be an asset.

"His legs are going to be strong, obviously. It kept him in good shape and he came to camp in good shape. Past that, I'm really not interested in his bike," Hernandez said. "He's slimmed out; he's grown into a man now. He looks great."

Fernandez began throwing six weeks ago, and Sunday delivered 32 pitches in his first session with new batterymate Jarrod Saltalamacchia, mostly fastballs and changeups with a few breaking balls to test the waters.

"You can tell he's just got such a great feel for his pitches, well above his years," Saltalamacchia said. "We haven't talked too much baseball, but just getting to know him he's a fun guy. Makes it easy, keeps it easy, which is nice for a catcher because those guys are always fun to deal with."

What remains to be seen is how Fernandez will deal with heightened expectations and inevitable adversity, which he mostly avoided last year.

Asked if he had heard of the concept of the sophomore slump, Fernandez said, "I don't want to hear of it. ... A lot of guys are saying that. I don't know; anything can happen. But man, I'm feeling really good."

Manager Mike Redmond recalled the incident early last spring when Fernandez, in his first opportunity to pitch to a hitter, hit Giancarlo Stanton in the head with a fastball.

"You think about how is he going to respond from that. Obviously, we know how he responded to that," Redmond said. "I'm sure there's expectations that he puts on himself. I know that he thinks he's going to go out and be even better. And you know, he might be."

Fernandez has written down some goals for his second season, which he is not ready to share. He said last year was as much about learning to play in the big leagues as it was about sudden success.

Among the lessons was the incident in his final start when he clashed with the Atlanta Braves and nearly sparked a brawl after hitting a home run and taking a slow tour around the bases.

"I learned from it. At the same time I'm not going to change who I am and I'm not going to change the way I play," he said. "I was born in Cuba. We play baseball a little different. That's who I am. I can't go out there and show no emotions.

"I'm going to have fun, there's no doubt in my mind."

For this spring, part of the fun will be riding 15 miles to and from Marlins camp. Just call it the Tour de Jupiter.

(c)2014 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



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