LOS ANGELES – Miami Marlins right-hander Jose Fernandez, at 21 years old one of the more promising pitchers in the big leagues, has a torn elbow ligament and is expected to undergo Tommy John surgery in the coming days, team officials confirmed Tuesday night.
The finality of the announcement follows the finality of many like it in recent months, in places such as Oakland (Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin), New York (Matt Harvey, Ivan Nova), Tampa Bay (Matt Moore), Pittsburgh (Jameson Taillon), Arizona (Patrick Corbin), Atlanta (Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen) and Baltimore (Dylan Bundy).
Considered by many an epidemic, ulnar collateral ligaments are failing at unprecedented rates, and so the Tommy John procedures are performed at assembly-line frequency, and the latest and greatest patient is the dynamic Fernandez – 16-8, with a 2.25 ERA over 36 career starts.
In what was presumed to be his first full season in the major leagues, Fernandez had a 1.74 ERA, a .176 batting average against and 65 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings before his start Friday night in San Diego, where his fastball lost life, his ERA ballooned and, by the end of five rough innings, his elbow had given out.
He was examined in Los Angeles, then Tuesday afternoon in Miami, and the tests and opinions matched. The recovery program is expected to last a year.
The Marlins' season might very well have ended with his.
Manager Mike Redmond on Tuesday said Anthony DeSclafani would start Wednesday night against the Dodgers. A right-hander who has not pitched above Double-A, the 24-year-old DeSclafani came to the Marlins two winters ago in the trade that sent Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and much of the organization's credibility to Toronto.
Mike Hill, the club's president of baseball operations, said Fernandez was visiting with his family and would decide what would come next. Hill said several times that surgery has been recommended, however, and there would seem to be no other option.
"A lot has gone on for him the last few days," Hill said. "A lot to take in and absorb. The sooner we can get a decision the sooner we can get surgery set up and get on with the recovery."
Miami's starting pitching has helped lead the Marlins to a surprisingly competitive start for a club generally regarded to be in rebuilding mode. Again.
"He's a big part of this organization," Hill said. "Obviously we've built around our pitching and he's a big part of that."
He added that the reasons for the sudden increase in elbow injuries such as Fernandez's are elusive.
"We've always tried to be very careful with our pitchers," he said. "We've done everything we felt was the right thing with how to handle him."
Nathan Eovaldi, who is 24, had Tommy John surgery seven years ago, in the summer between his junior and senior years at Alvin (Texas) High School. As a high-school pitcher, he recalled, he chased velocity like everyone else, and then he was taught the grip and basic mechanics of a slider. In the early stages of learning and throwing the slider, Eovaldi's elbow blew. Houston's Dr. David Lintner replaced Eovaldi's right ulnar collateral ligament with a tendon from Eovaldi's right wrist, and today Eovaldi carries a 98-mph fastball along with that slider, hardly gives a thought to the scar that came with them and will lead the Marlins' staff into summer.
That's the promise of the surgery, that Fernandez will return next summer with the same upper-90s fastball and secondary pitches he took to the operating table.
"There's no doubt Jose is a big blow," Redmond said. "We need to be able to pitch. We haven't been able to do that well on the road trip."
Not a week ago, the Marlins led the NL East with a 20-15 record. They are 17-5 at home. There were outscored 30-13 over their next four games, all on the road, and said goodbye to Fernandez for the season.
"I know at first he was shaken up by it," Hill said of Fernandez. "But I think he's coming to grips with what he needs to do."
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