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Richard Justice

Fernandez is a big deal, but what he did vs. Braves isn't

Fernandez is a big deal, but what he did vs. Braves isn't

Fernandez is a big deal, but what he did vs. Braves isn't

We're part of a lucky generation of baseball fans, because someday we'll be able to tell people we got to see Jose Fernandez pitch. That's how I feel every time I see this 21-year-old kid on a mound.

Fernandez's numbers are like something from a haywire video game. He's also bubbling with charm and charisma and energy, and he appears on his way to being one of the faces of an entire sport.

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Don't you just love it? Go ahead and name any kid pitcher you've ever heard about. At this point in his career, Jose Fernandez takes a backseat to no one. His rookie season ended Wednesday night with dazzling numbers: 2.19 ERA, .182 opponents batting average, 9.89 strikeouts per nine innings, 58 walks and 187 strikeouts in 172 2/3 innings.

And those numbers barely begin to tell the larger story of what Fernandez means to the Miami Marlins. He gets it in ways large and small.

Fernandez wants to connect with fans in a way that could be an example for every other player. He signs autographs and poses for pictures after almost every game. He hosts youth groups during Sunday home games.

He has been so spectacular that Marlins manager Mike Redmond said earlier this season one of his goals was to make sure Fernandez doesn't change.

And being demonstrative and emotional is part of the package.

During a 14-pitch at-bat against Braves catcher Brian McCann earlier this season, Fernandez stepped off the mound and yelled, "What do I have to throw you to get you out?"

Funny, right?

Fernandez pats umpires on the butt, hugs opponents, talks to everyone, does it all with constant chatter and a smile. If he's not the happiest person on earth, he's pretty close, and what in the world is wrong with that?

Who could be anything other than mesmerized by this kid? Fernandez is so engaging and so outgoing and so completely comfortable in the spotlight that it all seems natural.

He may sometimes get carried away in the heat of competition, but that's who he is. Like fellow Cuban, Yasiel Puig, Fernandez comes from a culture in which players make no attempt to hide their emotions.

In ways large and small, Fernandez is one of the things right about baseball in 2013. Thrust into the spotlight, he has done pretty much what he has always done. He has been himself.

So when Atlanta's Evan Gattis homered against him in the top of the sixth inning Wednesday, Fernandez reacted. He appeared to say loudly, "Wow."

At least that's one version of events. He also may have yelled a couple of things toward the Braves' dugout.

This was a combustible night, one that matched the excitable rookie with an Atlanta team on the verge of clinching a division championship.

But these games are important to the Braves as they battle the Dodgers for the National League's best record and potential home-field advantage in a postseason series.

Fernandez knew that he was being shut down after his Wednesday start, and so this was his Game 7. And when he hit his first career home run in the bottom of the sixth inning, he stood at home plate and watched. Yep, the Braves didn't like it.

As Fernandez circled the bases, he spit near Atlanta third baseman Chris Johnson, who let him hear about it. McCann was waiting for him at home plate, and pretty soon, both dugouts emptied with the two teams jawing at one another.

OK, Jose Fernandez messed up. In the heat of battle, the Braves responded.

Redmond got mad about it and said he understood why the Braves were ready to brawl. Fernandez apologized to McCann and Atlanta pitcher Mike Minor after the game. He apologized publicly too.

"I feel embarrassed," he said.

And that ought to be that.

Live and learn.

The Braves reacted the way competitors almost always react. No problem there. But in their heart of hearts, they have to know this is nothing more than an excitable kid competing and battling.

"I think he realized that he messed up," Johnson said. "I think the emotions got the best of him tonight."

If this is the worst thing Jose Fernandez ever does, if this is the one night when his energy and passion got him into trouble, big deal.

He's a kid, two years removed from high school. Cut him some slack. Good Lord. He'll figure it out. But no one should ever want to change him in any significant way.

To repeat: Fernandez is one of the things that's right about this game. His starts are on their way to becoming events.

Jose Fernandez's rookie year was a smashing success. He burst onto the scene in April and fulfilled every promise. Fernandez is tremendously talented. He's also not boring. All in all, a pretty good combination.

Thanks for a great rookie season, Jose. You made the game better in a lot of ways. See you in 2014, kid.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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