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For Pirates' Taillon, 'the progress is neat to follow'

| Saturday, June 28, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Pirates pitching prospect Jameson Taillon shows off the scar he got from having Tommy John surgery.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Every few days, Jameson Taillon pulls up a homemade video clip of his 20 favorite pitches.

Taillon stares at himself firing one perfect strike after another. The mechanics are smooth, the execution pure.

He's watched the clip religiously for the past 2 12 months as a reminder of what he was and what he expects to be.

“I try to remember that I am a pitcher and I throw a baseball for a living,” Taillon said. “When you're down here not throwing for 16 weeks, it's easy to forget.”

After starting the season at Triple-A, Taillon, the Pirates' top prospect, by now could have been pitching in the big leagues. Instead, the right-hander is rehabbing at Pirate City, the team's minor league complex, after having Tommy John surgery in mid-April.

It started, as such injuries often do, with minor elbow discomfort during spring training that grew into steady agony. To repair the damage, the surgeon harvested a tendon from Taillon's right leg.

“You go into surgery with a bum elbow and your leg is fine,” Taillon said. “You come out, and you've got a bum leg and elbow. That was the biggest surprise for me.”

Tommy John surgery is no longer a rarity. Pros, college players and even high schoolers go under the knife. Pitchers usually are back in action within 12 to 18 months.

“People think it's so routine, but there's a lot of work that goes into it,” Taillon said. “A lot of pain. A lot of rehab.”

Taillon spent the first few days after surgery getting back on his feet and relearning how to bend his elbow. The joints aren't so cranky these days, but the scars are souvenirs he'll never lose.

The rehab is a seven-days-a-week job. Every other day is devoted strictly to arm care. Taillon arrives at Pirate City by 7 a.m., rides a stationary bike to get his heart pumping, then begins his laundry list of about 20 custom-designed exercises for his shoulder, elbow, forearm, elbow and grip strength. The arm work alone takes about two hours.

“A couple of weeks ago, I could never imagine myself doing pushups,” Taillon said. “Now I'm doing pushups. The progress is neat to follow.”

The days when Taillon rests his arm are shorter. His routine is limited to cardio work and leg exercises.

It's important for Taillon to keep his mind sharp. The Pirates are among the first teams in MLB to use audio tools for mental conditioning during rehab.

Taillon used the first audio track right after his surgery. It was a 12-minute process of deep breathing and relaxation. The next track guided him through the rehab process. Soon he will download the throwing process audio track.

“It's almost like meditation,” Taillon said. “You close your eyes, breathe and listen. It puts you in a good state.”

In four weeks, Taillon will begin his throwing progression. The first step will be soft tossing from 45 feet every other day for two weeks. He eventually will stretch it out to 60 feet, then 75, then 90 and finally more than 100 feet.

After that, Taillon can start thinking about throwing off a mound. He expects to be well into that phase of recovery by the start of spring training next year.

“It takes a while to build up,” Taillon said. “But I don't care if I'm throwing 10 feet or whatever, at least I get to pick up a baseball and throw it.”

Taillon had not touched a ball since a few days before his surgery. There are hundreds of baseballs, big bags full of 'em, all over Pirate City, but Taillon avoided them. He did not want to have one in his right hand if he could not hurl it.

Early Wednesday, as he walked down a long, white-walled hallway to the trainer's room, Taillon spotted a forgotten ball resting on a cart. There was nobody around.

He picked it up.

“It didn't feel foreign in my hand,” he said, smiling. “It still felt pretty normal.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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