MIAMI -- Though their lives long ago intersected and their careers, in many ways, will forever be intertwined, Aledmys Diaz and Jose Fernandez, with the exception of those impromptu street ball games many years ago, had never before gone toe to toe.
That chance came Thursday, when Fernandez drew his first season start against a Cardinals club that Diaz joined in April. The elder but less-experienced Diaz went on to shine in this matchup, tagging Fernandez for a two-run homer and RBI double that keyed the Cardinals' 5-4 win over the Marlins at Marlins Park.
"That was a lot of fun, trying to compete against my buddy," Diaz said afterward. "He loves competing, and so do I. I just tried to enjoy that moment."
Their relationship dates back to those years on Eighth Street, where Diaz and Fernandez grew up doors apart in the Cuban neighborhood of Santa Clara. Fernandez credits Diaz's father, Rigoberto, and uncle, Nelson, for introducing him to baseball.
Their lives diverged after Fernandez defected to the United States as a teenager. Diaz followed four years later, and the two ended up as teammates on the National League All-Star roster this summer. Never before, however, had they been pitted as opponents.
"I had a feeling they were going to both try to bring everything they had," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "It was pretty special. I don't think we can really understand what it is they had to go through to get here and the stories that they have back home."
Fernandez got the best of Diaz in the first inning, inducing a groundout to help him through a 1-2-3 inning. He was struck, however, by Diaz's aggressive approach.
"First at-bat, he swung first pitch, and I told him, 'Really? You're going to swing first pitch like that?'" Fernandez said. "That swing had a lot of bad intentions on it. I was like, 'This guy wants to hit it 10,000 feet.'"
Diaz maintained that approach in his next two at-bats -- and it worked. He belted a fastball to left-center for a two-run homer in the third and doubled in a run two innings later. Those were two of the five extra-base hits Fernandez allowed over five innings.
"I just try to be aggressive with him because he's a great pitcher," said Diaz, whose parents were in the stands to enjoy his big night. "I know if you get behind in the count, he has a lot of stuff -- a fastball up to 98 [mph], a slider at 81. I tried to be aggressive and take advantage of mistakes."
Outcome aside, the two players had a unique appreciation for the moments they shared on Thursday, moments they never could have imaged as kids playing alongside one another on a sandlot field and on the neighborhood streets.
"I think it's a dream for both of us," Diaz said. "We take a lot of pride in coming here and working at this level. We appreciate the opportunity this country has given us to be able to come here and play in the big leagues."
"It was different to face him," added Fernandez. "I've known him since before I started walking and talking. I'm glad he's doing well, and he's helping his team to win. You can't get mad at that."
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Read her blog, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.