Braves shocked, saddened by death of Marlins star Jose Fernandez

The game was cancelled, but that felt entirely insignificant Sunday in the face of the tragic death of one of baseball’s brightest young stars, a 24-year-old Cuban defector with an ebullient personality, a beloved and revered figure in Miami. Fernandez on Tuesday posted a picture on Instagram of his girlfriend, Carla Mendoza, pregnant with their child.

Fernandez was one of three men killed when the boat in which he was a passenger crashed into a rock jetty off Miami Beach at around 3 a.m., said a Florida Wildlife Commission official. Alcohol or drugs weren’t believed to be involved.

“I’m at a loss for words,” said Braves slugger Freddie Freeman, who had some memorable matchups against Fernandez during the pitcher’s four seasons with the Marlins. “Utter disbelief, shock. Hoping to wake up from this nightmare. One of the best people I’ve ever met. Unbelievable competitor. It was a treat for me to be able to get to know him over the last few years.”

The Braves lost to the Marlins 6-4 in a Saturday night game at Marlins Park and were scheduled to play the finale of a four-game series Sunday afternoon. Fernandez had originally been scheduled to start the game, but the Marlins had announced Saturday his start was pushed back to Monday.

The Braves and Marlins will not make up Sunday’s game, Marlins president David Samson said. The Marlins will go ahead with plans to face the Mets in a Monday series opener to begin the final week of the regular season, but they know it could be extremely difficult.

“We’re not robots; we’re humans,” said Marlins third baseman and team leader Martin Prado, a former Brave. “(Fernandez) made an impact on every single person on this team. I understand the fact that we have to play games and we’re going to be professional about it, but deep in our hearts there’s a lot of pain. Some way we’ve got to overcome that, but right now it’s something that … it’s hard.”

Fernandez was 38-17 with a 2.58 ERA in 76 career starts and had 589 strikeouts with 140 walks in 471 1/3 innings. This year, in his first full season after recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery, he reclaimed his place as one of the truly elite pitchers in baseball, going 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA and 253 strikeouts in 182 1/3 innings.

Freeman considered Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers as the only pitcher as good as Fernandez.

“Still in shock. Disbelief,” Braves interim manager Brian Snitker said Sunday morning, seated in the visitor’s dugout at Marlins Park, where the mammoth scoreboard had just two things on it: Jose Fernandez’s name and number (16). “Everybody in there (in the Braves clubhouse) is just kind of staring at each other, it seems like. Biggest thing, I’m a parent, a young man like that … it’s just hard to comprehend.”

Fernandez, a muscular right-hander, had an infectious smile and a personality that was both fiery-competitive and playful, sometimes all at once. He laughed and smiled on the field, flexed his biceps sometimes while standing on base after getting a big hit, as he did once in Atlanta this summer.

“The excitement that he brought to the ballpark, the game, the challenge, that’s the biggest thing,” Snitker said. “Because he was one of the best in the game. You look forward to playing against the best. The kid had a lot of energy, unbelievable talent, brought excitement to the game. I know he lit this place up. It’s just a sad, tragic thing.

“You could tell the kid loved to play baseball and loved to compete. The talent was off the charts. He scared you on the mound, he scared you in the batter’s box. He was a complete player. You talk about the young stars of the game, he’s at the top of the heap and the energy and the excitement he brought to the game, especially in this community here. He was perfect for here. It’s sad, tragic.”

Marlins manager Don Mattingly fought back tears and had to pause several times during a press conference when asked what he’ll remember about Fernandez, what he saw in him. All of Fernandez’s teammates stood behind a table where Mattingly, Prado and team officials were seated.

“I see such a little boy. … The way he played, there was joy with him when he played,” Mattingly said. “Because as mad as he would make you with some of the stuff that he would do, you’d just see that little kid that you … that you see when you watch kids play Little League, or something like that. That’s the joy that Jose played with. The passion that he felt about playing, that’s what I’ll think of.”

Fernandez, who defected from Cuba at 15 and finished high school in Tampa, was the National League rookie of the year in 2013. He finished third in the NL Cy Young Award balloting that season after going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA in 28 starts with 187 strikeouts in 172 2/3 innings.

“The first time I ever faced him was in Atlanta and I got a hit off him the first two times. He was just kind of jawing with me during the game, and that personality …” Freeman said. “A lot of pitchers, when you get a hit off them they get mad at you. But he’s smiling at you, having a good time. You get drawn to him. Obviously we’ve had a couple of scuffles over the years, but you just talk to him about that and see how much energy he has. It’s always been fun to play against him and obviously every time you faced him, it just brings the best out of you.”

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