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Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Fernandez most recent talented arm lost to injury

— I've checked baseball's power grid.

It just lost a lot of juice.

It appears Tampa's Jose Fernandez, one of the game's bright young lights, could be headed for season-ending elbow surgery of the Tommy John variety. The Miami Marlins have placed the 21-year-old right-handed pitcher on the disabled list with an elbow “sprain,” but the news is expected to get worse, bordering on devastating.

And baseball grows a little dimmer.

“Man, he's so good for the game,” said Landy Faedo, who coached Fernandez at Alonso High. “Jose is such a big boost of energy for MLB. The guy has been electrifying. And he has such charisma.”

Fernandez won the National League Rookie of the Year in 2013, going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA with 187 strikeouts in just 172 innings. His fastball blew batters away, his off-speed stuff dropped men to their knees. He brought a brashness, a joy to every game. His story, which once had him bobbing on a boat between Cuba and the U.S., remains irresistible.

Fernandez and his urgent fury remind us of the big-league arrival of another Hillsborough County pitching star 30 years ago:

Dwight Gooden.

Fernandez was off and dominating this season. His starts had become must-watch. I'd check on him every fifth day. The kid made you stop and notice. It could be a no-hitter, an 18-strikeout night, something, anything. Amazing.

Now he is merely a member of a growing casualty list, a spreading rash of Tommy John surgeries. Count in Rays lefty Matt Moore.

What's happening here?

Faedo said he protected Fernandez at Alonso, keeping him at around 75-80 pitches early in his high school career, yanking him in the name of pitch counts even as Fernandez protested.

The Marlins, too, seemed to have followed protocol. Fernandez has thrown at least 100 pitches in only 11 of his 36 major-league starts. Miami even shut him down in 2013 with three weeks left in the season.

No matter.

Here's the problem: Pitchers get hurt. Maybe the mound is too high or the kids are too young when they start firing way. Something needs to be done about all that. But pitching injuries are a story as old as ulnar collateral ligaments. With the exception of notable alien life forms, like Nolan Ryan, pitchers break down.

“Pitching is not a natural movement for anyone,” Faedo said. “And at the elite level, (Jose) is hitting 98, 99 miles per hour. He's consistently throwing 95, every pitch. It's just more pitchers throwing harder.”

That's what I think of every time I see a photo of Sandy Koufax's Hall of Fame delivery, all that torque on that left elbow. It's awesome in its greatness, terrifying because you know its toll. Koufax was done by age 30.

Pitchers get hurt. Talk to Nationals fans about Stephen Strasburg. Talk to Cubs fans about Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Fernandez sometimes reminds me of Wood, who at age 20 struck out 20 batters in a game, tying Roger Clemens. Woods went on the disabled list 14 times in his 13-year career. He had Tommy John in 1999.

Baseball Prospectus nailed it after raving on Jose Fernandez. Here was the last line of analysis:

“That sick anxiety you have about him getting injured because every pitcher does? We all have it.”

Landy Faedo texted Jose Fernandez after the news broke. He told him he was tougher than any injury.

“He's gone through so much more than anyone else has, just getting out of Cuba.” Faedo said.

Faedo's son, Alex, is a senior at Alonso and a top baseball prospect. He's a right-handed pitcher.

“He gets up to 94 on his fastball,” Landy Faedo said. “I've been very careful with him. I'm careful with all of them. I was careful with Jose.”

Pitchers get hurt.

And baseball is less electrifying today.

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