Fernandez: Opening Day start 'means everything'

Just six years after defecting from Cuba at age 15, right-hander gets nod in opener

Fernandez: Opening Day start 'means everything'

JUPITER, Fla. -- Simply throwing the first pitch of the season on Monday will be thrilling enough for Marlins ace Jose Fernandez. Add to that the fact that his grandmother, Olga, will be at Marlins Park for the occasion makes Opening Day yet another dream come true for the 21-year-old right-hander.

As if the always-energized Fernandez needed another adrenaline boost.

Fernandez's personal saga has been well documented. At age 15, he defected from Cuba and settled in Tampa, Fla. Five years later, he was in the big leagues and being named to the National League All-Star team. The right-hander turned 21 on July 30, and after a record-setting season he was named National League Rookie of the Year.

One thing missing in the remarkable six-year ride was having his grandmother at his games. Olga still lives in Cuba, but a few months ago she obtained a visitation visa.

In November, the Marlins orchestrated a surprise reunion at Marlins Park. Fernandez was kept in the dark that his grandmother was in town until she entered the clubhouse while he was giving an interview. A couple of days later, accompanied by Olga and his mother, Martiza, Fernandez was named NL Rookie of the Year.

On Monday, when Fernandez takes the mound in the season opener against the Rockies at Marlins Park, Olga will be in attendance.

"It's going to mean everything," Fernandez said. "My grandma hasn't seen me pitch since I was 14 years old. For sure, it's going to be a special night. But it's special the way it is already. Her being there is going to add more to my personal feelings."

Having Fernandez as their ace is one reason the Marlins are cautiously optimistic heading into the season.

After finishing 62-100 a year ago, the organization is in no position to make bold claims. Yet, there is hope and promise, and much of that is connected to one of the rising young rotations in the game. Fernandez headlines the list of hard throwers with tremendous upside.

Based on pure stuff, and impressive numbers as a rookie, Fernandez already has achieved tremendous acclaim. Along with being a convincing winner in the Rookie of the Year race, he also finished third in the Cy Young voting.

But like any player coming off a stellar rookie season, there inevitably is talk about a sophomore jinx.

Repeating his rookie success may be difficult, but it certainly wouldn't surprise anyone when you take into consideration how talented he is. Mechanically, he is very clean. He possesses four plus-pitches, and his fastball reached as high as 99 mph last year.

Throw into the equation that he is an unrelenting competitor, and you have the makings of a potential Cy Young Award winner.

"He's a tremendous talent, but as we've said, you don't win with one guy," Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill said. "It takes 25 guys -- and probably a lot more than 25 -- to be successful. He's definitely important pitching at the front end of our rotation. His passion and his energy are infectious. It definitely spreads throughout, and guys want to do well for him because he's such a good guy."

When the first pitch is thrown, Fernandez will officially become the youngest starting pitcher in Marlins history. The right-hander will be 21 years, 243 days old.

Josh Beckett was 22 years, 320 days old when he got the Opening Day nod for the club in 2003.

Fernandez also will be the youngest Opening Day starter in the big leagues since Felix Hernandez of the Mariners was 20 years, 359 days old in 2007.

Despite his youth, Fernandez shares something in common with pitchers of all ages -- he's a perfectionist. He is hard on himself when he gives up as much as a few hits.

"All pitchers are like that," manager Mike Redmond said. "They get one time a week to go out and pitch. Every five days, they want to go out and be perfect. That's just the nature of their job. That can be rough. You're not going to be perfect every single time. Some days you're going to be better than others. That's where you've got to trust your stuff and understand you have a plan, and continue to stay focused.

"Jose is amazing at that for such a young guy. There are going to be some battles out there. There are going to be some nights where he doesn't feel great, and he's going to have to battle and give us everything he has. I know that he will do that."

The youthful enthusiasm Fernandez has surfaces every time he takes the field. This is a guy who had a hard time sleeping before his first Grapefruit League start in Spring Training.

Having his grandmother and mother at the game on Monday makes the day even more meaningful.

Wherever they are sitting, Fernandez will take notice. He made a practice of that as a rookie, locating his mother shortly after he completed his warmups.

"When I know my mom is in the stands, when I'm walking in from the bullpen, I like to know where she is sitting," Fernandez said.

Expect nothing different when his grandmother is also seated.

"For sure, I will see her before the game," Fernandez said.

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.