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Sparks fly in Jose Fernandez's season finale as he caps impressive rookie year

Jose Fernandez (right) and Brian McCann had some words for each other after the pitcher's home run. (Lynne Sladky/AP)Jose Fernandez (right) and Brian McCann had some words for each other after the pitcher's home run. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Jose Fernandez put an exclamation point on his stellar rookie season on Wednesday night -- and cleared both benches in the process. Making his final start of the year before being shut down due to an innings limit, the 21-year-old Marlins phenom not only kept the Braves offense at bay for seven innings, he also clouted a solo homer and drew the opposition's ire for admiring it.

Fernandez had cruised through his first five innings without allowing a run while the Marlins built up a 4-0 lead against Mike Minor, with Giancarlo Stanton driving in three runs, including two on a long homer to dead centerfield. Evan Gattis put the Braves on the board by hammering Fernandez's first pitch of the sixth inning, a 96 mph fastball, to leftfield for a towering solo homer, after which he took a long moment to admire it. Fernandez could be seen shaking his head and mouthing the word "Wow!" after the shot, though whether it was due to its emphatic nature or to Gattis' slow exit from the box was unclear.

Fernandez went on to retire Brian McCann, Chris Johnson and Andrelton Simmons on seven pitches to complete the inning. After inducing Johnson into a long flyout to deep left center, the Braves third baseman could be seen exchanging words with the pitcher. Fernandez was animated and visibly agitated enough as he returned to the dugout that, according to the Braves' television feed, manager Mike Redmond took him down to the tunnel for a moment to cool off.

Though the Marlins had backed off their initial plan to limit Fernandez to six innings in each of their last two starts -- he went seven and allowed one hit against the Nationals on September 6 -- it nonetheless came as a minor surprise that Redmond let Fernandez hit for himself with a three-run lead and two outs in the bottom of the sixth. That said, his pitch count was at just 86, and he was hardly laboring. So Fernandez stepped into the box against Minor and, after taking a ball, hammered an 84 mph changeup to deep left-center for his first major league homer, and took his own sweet time to watch. Here's the video from MLB.com:

[mlbvideo id="30527239" width="600" height="336" /]

As he trotted around the bases, Fernandez racheted tensions up a notch when he appeared to spit in the direction of third base while Johnson watched. When he got to home plate, McCann began jawing with him. As home plate umpire Sam Holbrook moved to separate the two players before hostilities escalated, Johnson charged into the fray… then courageously hid behind the umpire. Both benches and bullpens emptied, and there appeared to be a fair bit of shouting and shoving but no punches thrown, warranting warnings to both benches but no ejections. Even after the crowd dissipated, Johnson could still be seen shouting.

With nothing really on the line as far as playoff implications are concerned, it was all silly stuff triggered largely by the actions of an exuberant 21-year-old. Doubtless there will be a handful of fun police columns questioning Fernandez's conduct and maturity, similar to those which Yasiel Puig has been subjected to in recent weeks. Such people should be sentenced to watching the Marlins play out the string without their star rookie.

In any event, Fernandez returned to the mound and pitched a scoreless seventh inning, striking out Justin Upton on an 83 mph curveball for his fifth K of the night and his 187th of the season, then walking off the mound to a standing ovation from the crowd of 25,111.

Assuming that's the last pitch he's thrown for the year, Fernandez has made a strong case for NL Rookie of the Year honors even among a strong rookie class that includes Shelby Miller, Puig and Hyun-Jin Ryu. He could receive Cy Young support as well. At this writing, his 2.19 ERA trails only Clayton Kershaw's 1.92, though the Dodgers' southpaw has 44 2/3 more innings at the moment (216 to 172 2/3) and still has a few turns left. Fernandez leads the league in strikeouts per nine innings (9.75) by a narrow margin and hits per nine (5.8) by a wide one while his home run rate (0.5 per nine) ranks fourth; Gattis' homer was just the 10th he's allowed all season. He entered the night ranked third among NL pitchers in Wins Above Replacement, with 5.9 to Jhoulys Chacin's 6.5 and Kershaw's 6.8, and certainly drew closer with his seven-inning, one run performance.

What's perhaps most impressive about Fernandez's rookie campaign is the rapid in-season improvement that elevated him into the discussion as one of the game's elite. Through the end of May, a period covering his first 10 starts, he put up a respectable 3.78 ERA and struck out 23.4 percent of all hitters. Since the beginning of June, he's flat-out dominated, dipping to a 1.50 ERA while striking out 29.4 percent of hitters. He delivered 16 quality starts in his last 18 turns, and only twice allowed more than two runs during that stretch.

Even without considering the remarkable back story of Fernandez's defection from Cuba at age 15 or his jump from A-ball directly to the majors this year in order to generate positive publicity for a team desperately in need of some good buzz, his season ranks among the most impressive showings for a rookie pitcher or one in his age 20 season. Here's the top 15 among players through their age 20 seasons (Fernandez didn't turn 21 until July 31, so he qualifies) according to Baseball-Reference.com's version of WAR, keeping in mind that the player in question's final tally will move up once the overnight numbers are crunched:

Rk Player Year Age Tm IP SO/9ERA ERA+ WAR
1Dwight Gooden198520Mets276.78.71.5322912.1
2Bob Feller193920Indians296.77.52.851549.3
3Christy Mathewson190120Giants336.05.92.411389.1
4Bert Blyleven197120Twins278.37.22.811266.4
5Gary Nolan196719Reds226.78.22.581476.3
6Don Drysdale195720Dodgers221.06.02.691536.1
7Jose Fernandez201320Marlins172.79.82.191775.9+
8Dave Rozema197720Tigers218.33.83.091395.7
9Harry Krause190920A's213.05.91.391745.6
10Dwight Gooden198419Mets218.011.42.601375.5
11Dennis Eckersley197520Indians186.77.32.601445.3
12Bob Feller193819Indians277.77.84.081135.1
13Walter Johnson190820Senators256.35.61.651385.1
14Fernando Valenzuela198120Dodgers192.38.42.481354.8
15Frank Tanana197420Angels268.76.03.121104.7
That's a fun list, featuring no fewer than six Hall of Famers (Blyleven, Drysdale, Eckersley, Feller, Johnson and Mathewson) as well as sensations such as Gooden and Valenzuela who burned brightly but ran into roadblocks on the way to Cooperstown. That Fernandez threw far fewer innings than any of them is a sign of the times, as the Marlins take precautions to protect his arm. That he ranks right in the middle of that esteemed company is a sign that he's only getting started in a career that should be very special.

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