JUPITER, Florida — Jose Fernandez left the field after seven innings, then said two very important words before he entered the Jupiter Hammerheads' clubhouse to prepare for the quick drive back to Miami.
"No pain," he said.
For the Miami Marlins, there could be no better report.
Their ace right-hander threw 90 pitches over seven innings in a rehab start Monday night, giving up four hits and one run while striking out nine in a Class A game against the St. Lucie Mets. If all goes according to plan, Fernandez will start for Double-A Jacksonville on Saturday and return to the Miami rotation against San Francisco on July 2.
"This start did a lot of good things for my mind," said Fernandez, who got the win as Jupiter prevailed 4-1. "My pitch count ... for sure, it's feeling better and better all the time."
The 2013 NL Rookie of the Year last pitched in the majors on May 9, 2014, giving up two home runs for the first time in his career and losing 10-1 to San Diego. Within days, he was on the disabled list with a sprained right elbow — usually the sure-fire sign of big trouble. Fernandez had surgery to reconstruct a ligament in his elbow on May 16, 2014, then didn't throw again for nearly 10 months.
All along, the Marlins were thinking the All-Star break this year seemed like a realistic return target for Fernandez. He's been stretched out fairly significantly in each of his four rehab outings, going from 54 pitches to 65, then 79 and now 90.
He reached 98 mph on the stadium radar gun twice, was still hitting 97 in his final inning and threw 69 of his pitches for strikes.
"I'm getting close," Fernandez said. "It's about time, I guess."
Fernandez was throwing hard when he wanted, including one time when first baseman Harold Riggins was left shaking his glove a bit after taking a particularly crisp toss that completed a 1-3 groundout.
Most of Fernandez's heat, however, was saved for the Mets' minor leaguers.
Fernandez allowed back-to-back singles in the second inning, one on a bit of a blooper and the other when Dominic Smith caught up with a 94 mph offering, and was clearly displeased. Up in the press box, one of the Marlins' observers at the game knew what was coming.
"He's getting mad now," Jack McKeon said.
Sure enough, the manager who guided the Marlins to their most recent World Series title in 2003 was right.
Poor Amed Rosario. The Mets' shortstop followed Smith in the order and had no chance — barely ticking back a 96 mph fastball, swinging through a 94 mph pitch for strike two and then freezing on an 83 mph slider.
"See the difference in his delivery? He's getting mad," McKeon said. "This guy's in trouble if he bears down."
Rosario was victimized again in the seventh. After fouling off three straight pitches — 96, 93 and 97 mph, respectively — Fernandez struck him out again on an 82 mph off-speed toss.
"It's part of the way that I pitch and the way that I handle what I do," Fernandez said. "Thank God, I feel healthy. Arm's feeling great, looking forward for my next bullpen in two days and then Saturday in Jacksonville."
Asked what's left to do before he pronounces himself ready for the majors again, Fernandez didn't hesitate. Seven more rehab innings, he said, will be enough.
"I look back 13 months ago," Fernandez said, "and I feel lucky to be out on that mound."