Pirates' Jameson Taillon tagged in loss to Cubs
A commonly cited affirmative statistic by Clint Hurdle in evaluating his starting pitchers is first-pitch strikes.
On Sunday, first-pitch strikes weren't the problem for Jameson Taillon. The Cubs hitting those pitches — with authority — was.
In his second outing since his return from surgery to address testicular cancer, Taillon was tagged for eight hits in five innings of a 7-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Sunday.
Mt. Lebanon graduate Ian Happ had a solo homer in the ninth for Chicago, and Jordy Mercer homered to account for the run for the Pirates (31-38).
The Cubs came into the series finale with an aggressive mindset against Taillon (3-2) — each of the first four batters of the game swung at the first pitch, and the first three put it in play. Two of those were doubles hit hard off Taillon fastballs: Statcast pegged Anthony Rizzo's leadoff double as having a 101-mph exit velocity, and Willson Contreras followed two batters later with a double to center that traveled 104.3 mph off the bat.
"I kind of knew going in they were going to swing," Taillon said. "I didn't think four swings in the first four pitches — but it was kind of expected."
Taillon threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 23 batters he faced, including during each of Chicago's starting nine his first time through the batting order. The Cubs had three doubles (including Javier Baez leading off the fourth) against Taillon first-pitch fastballs; the fourth double they hit off him (Contreras in the third) was on the second pitch.
"They've seen me a few times; they know I'm going to be around the zone," Taillon said.
"If they're going to swing, I guess the goal is to make them swing at your pitches – and maybe have them chase some pitches. Use the aggressive energy to my advantage as opposed to theirs."
It's been a recipe that's had mixed results for Taillon this season: although opponents entered Sunday hitting just .239 with a .286 on-base percentage when they swing at the first pitch (they're hitting .264 with a .350 OBP when they take the first pitch), seven of the 15 extra-base hits against him have come on the first pitch.
When Taillon threw a first-pitch strike, the Cubs offered at it 13 of 18 times. Not counting bunt attempts, the Cubs went 3 for 4 on balls in play on the 15 occasions Taillon threw a first-pitch strike with just two swings and misses.
"The objective is pitchers are going to throw strike one, right?" said Rizzo, who has been moved to the leadoff spot and had two hits among the first three Taillon pitches he saw Sunday. "They want to get into a groove. And I am gonna be ready to hit. Not necessarily looking to swing first pitch every time, but just looking for something to hit."
The eight hits tied for the second most in 26 major-league starts for Taillon. Though the four runs he was charged with weren't enough in themselves to make it prohibitive for the Pirates to win, neither the offense nor the bullpen did their part.
Mercer's home run, his sixth, was one of only three hits and one of only six baserunners against John Lackey (5-7) and three relievers.
Other than a clean, two-strikeout inning from Edgar Santana, veterans Wade LeBlanc and Tony Watson were charged with three runs in a combined 22⁄3 innings. Watson served up Happ's home run, making it four homers and nine runs allowed over his past 10 outings (92⁄3 innings).
Rizzo crushed a LeBlanc fastball into center with a man on in the seventh; LeBlanc has been scored upon in five of his past six appearances (11.74 ERA in that span). The Pirates have lost three of four to drop back to seven games under .500. They went 5-5 on the just-completed homestand.
"I think we're still playing good ball," Mercer said. "Our pitching and our offense is gelling at times. We just need to consistently to do it."