Kevin Gorman: Pirates can only hope Jameson Taillon finds gold at end of rainbow
Jameson Taillon had to get a grasp of his injury then get a grip. If the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander is going to pitch again this season, he first has to pick up a baseball.
That’s how far along Taillon is two months into his road to recovery from a right elbow flexor tendon strain. And that’s how far away he is from pitching for the Pirates this season.
But Taillon got good news this week. Tests show he’s healing, and can start tossing a baseball. That had the 27-year-old right-hander hopeful this won’t be a lost season, even if he’s set to lose a lot of money entering his first year of arbitration.
“I’ve heard a lot of different things going through this process. I felt a lot of different things. It’s tough being hurt,” Taillon said. “Sometimes, all you need is a little bit of good news, something you can hang your hat on and get excited about. I haven’t had a ton to get excited about, except for the way these guys are playing. I needed some good news. Now, I feel like I’m walking around here with a little bit more purpose.”
For as much as Josh Bell has been the feel-good story of the first half for the Pirates, Taillon is their what-if. Starting pitching was supposed to be their strength; instead, four-fifths of the rotation has spent time on the injured list while the bats carried the Bucs.
What if Taillon was healthy?
The Pirates might be in first place in the NL Central heading into the All-Star break this week. And Taillon might be pitching for the National League in the Midsummer Classic in Cleveland.
As impressive as his 14-10 record, 3.20 ERA and 1.18 WHIP were last season, they didn’t tell the totality of his dominance. Taillon was evolving into an ace, as evidenced by his streak of allowing three runs or fewer in his final 22 starts.
“It’s definitely tough,” Taillon said. “I had pretty high expectations this year. We had pretty high expectations for the pitching staff. If I’m healthy, I know I can provide something a lot of other guys in this league can’t provide. I know I give depth. I know I can be a stopper. I know I can make big pitches against big hitters in big situations. It’s definitely tough. It’s not how I envisioned my year to go, but what are you going to do?”
You play with toys, then you paint rainbows.
That’s how Taillon will start throwing after being shut down for two months. Just getting to this point required time in what Taillon jokingly calls “The Toy Station.”
That’s the exercise area set up with equipment to strengthen his grip, using everything from a web to stretch his fingers to a log that he rotates and pronates for his forearms. Soon, perhaps on Sunday, he plans to long-toss from 60 feet, high-arching rainbows to see how it feels to throw a baseball again.
Getting a grip was preceded by getting a grasp on another unfortunate setback in the star-crossed career for Taillon, selected by the Pirates No. 2 overall in the 2010 MLB Draft, behind Bryce Harper and ahead of Manny Machado.
Not only has Taillon returned from Tommy John surgery — or what he calls “that nasty word” — but also a hernia operation and testicular cancer. Those maladies make taking a line drive off the back of his head seem like something minor by comparison.
You can only imagine the thoughts that raced through his mind when he experienced soreness in his right arm while pitching against the Texas Rangers in early May.
“The man he’s become is the result of what he’s been through,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “And he’s been through more than maybe anybody else in that clubhouse, from a professionally-challenged situation, and he’s pushed through a couple different times already.
“The fact that he shows up, the face that he shows up with and the encouragement that he shows up with, the ability to help with scheming and game-planning — ‘Here’s the way I attacked these guys, here’s what’s worked for me’ — has all been a big added value for us.”
Taillon’s absence hasn’t kept him from continuing to be a clubhouse leader. Watching games in the dugout with assistant pitching coach Justin Meccage allowed Taillon to pick up on pitch sequencing and learning hitters’ tendencies, and he doesn’t hesitate to pass on tips to his teammates.
“It’s an opportunity to view the game in a different way and a different light,” Taillon said. “It really is different when you’re not stressed about taking up the ball every fifth day. You can just sit back and pick up on things.”
What Taillon wants — and what the Pirates desperately need — is for him to pick up a baseball and start throwing again. His comeback is akin to starting over in spring training — he likened it to his January routine — and could take as long as six weeks.
That he has no control over whether the Pirates are in the thick of a pennant race or in last place in the NL Central is distressing to Taillon, who can only watch and wish.
“I want to help. I want to be the guy that can help,” Taillon said. “Knowing that you’re far away and you can’t do anything that night to contribute is tough.”
But Taillon isn’t totally down and out.
He’s pumped about playing with toys and painting rainbows and, eventually, getting a grip to let it rip. The possibility of playing again has given him purpose in the daily routine.
“I’m walking around with some good vibes right now,” Taillon said. “For awhile, I was caught in the gray area, just trying to figure out what the plan is. Now I’ve got a plan in place, and I’m starting to do new, exciting drills. I can start to see a light at the end of the tunnel and, for me, that’s exciting.”
That’s enough for Taillon to believe he can turn this what-if season into another feel-good story for the Pirates, his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And that beats the nasty word.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .