PITTSBURGH - The joy of the Nationals' division-clinching celebration last night came to a screeching halt this morning as players learned the news that stunned the entire baseball world: Jose Fernandez's death from a boating accident in Miami.
The Marlins ace was a well-known figure throughout the Nationals clubhouse, mostly as one of the toughest competitors they had to face on a regular basis, including as recently as Tuesday night.
This morning's news stopped players in their tracks.
"I'm still kind of lost for words," said right-hander Mat Latos, a Marlins teammate for part of last season. "I was there briefly, but four days ago I walked over to him and gave him a hug, just talked baseball, talked how well he was throwing the ball, how well he was pitching this year."
Players raved about Fernandez's competitive fire and talent, but they most admired his love of baseball and life, which was evident to anyone who crossed paths with the 24-year-old.
"What you saw on the field was the same thing I feel like I was able to experience personally," second baseman Daniel Murphy said. "And this was just a handful of occasions where it was just me and him for a little bit, or in a smaller group setting. The same joy that he seemed to get on the field, that's the way he was one-on-one. It just seemed like somebody who really enjoyed life."
Murphy, as it turned out, was the final batter ever to face Fernandez; he grounded out to second base with runners on the corners and two out in the eighth inning Tuesday at Marlins Park. Fernandez outdueled Tanner Roark that night, lifting his team to a 1-0 victory.
Dominating success against the Nationals, of course, was the norm for Fernandez. He was 7-0 with an 0.99 ERA in 10 career starts against Washington. He was lined up to make one more start against them this season, Saturday at Nationals Park.
Trea Turner had faced Fernandez long before anyone else on the Nationals knew anything about the right-hander; the two faced off during the Florida high school state playoffs in 2011, shortly before the Marlins took Fernandez in the first round of the draft.
"I played against him my last game in high school," Turner said. "They beat us in the semifinal. You could tell right then he was special. He was basically, for the most part, the same pitcher that he is now. He just threw real hard, great breaking ball, just had good feel for the game. He took it to the next level, and he was probably one of the best pitchers in all of baseball."
Fernandez played in high school in Tampa, but prior to that he on four occasions tried to defect from his native Cuba, escaping only on the final attempt along with his sister and mother (who he had to save after falling out of the boat).
Others around the sport had tremendous respect for him, for reasons that went far beyond baseball.
"I think I heard him say before he felt truly blessed to be able to play baseball at this level," Murphy said. "I think we're all aware of his background, what his family and he himself went through just to get to the United States. And how he was able to take that and run with it. And a life that was cut far, far too short."