Taillon wins first start since cancer surgery

With Rockies' Bettis looking on, Bucs righty whiffs 5 over 5 scoreless

June 13th, 2017

PITTSBURGH -- Twenty days after undergoing surgery for testicular cancer, after losing what he described as a "piece of my "manhood" but feeling like more of a man than ever, sent a text message to Rockies pitcher .

Taillon was concerned that people might judge him for what he was about to do: pitch. Before making a start for Double-A Altoona on May 28, Taillon reached out to Bettis, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in late November, for support. Was he crazy for getting back on the mound so quickly?

"This is what we do. This is who we are," Bettis responded. "We're ballplayers."

On Monday night at PNC Park, exactly five weeks removed from his operation, Taillon got back to being a ballplayer. The 25-year-old right-hander rejoined the Pirates' rotation and struck out five over five scoreless innings in a 7-2 victory over Colorado.

"That's all I really wanted this whole time was to get back in a regular routine, pitch every five days," Taillon said afterward. "I feel like I've been through a lot. Hopefully there's not much more coming my way, and I can just take the ball every fifth day."

Taillon compared the nerves to those he felt in his Major League debut almost a year ago. After an emotional walk from the bullpen to the home dugout, his heart raced and his legs shook. 

He finally calmed down after the first inning, when he struck out Charlie Blackmon and DJ LeMahieu. He worked a perfect second on eight pitches before escaping minor jams in each of his final three innings.

"When I finished my outing, I got to step back and enjoy the moment and realize that I was back," Taillon said. "It was special."

His father, Michael, was in attendance. So were fans carrying signs of support, including one that read: "J.T., you struck out cancer." Taillon threw 82 pitches, scattered five hits and walked two in his first big league start in 40 days.

"He went out there and he pitched, man. It was fun to watch," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He had to roll his sleeves up and go to work."

His quick return did not surprise those who know him well. He is mature beyond his years and tenacious in the way he attacks everything from opposing batters to injury rehabilitations.

"To [pitch Monday] as if he hasn't missed a beat, just simply amazing," general manager Neal Huntington said. "There's really no other word for it."

Taillon was the second overall Draft pick in 2010 (Woodland HS in in Texas) but did not follow a linear path to this point. Tommy John surgery and a hernia operation cost him all of 2014-15, but the Pirates insist that time did not go to waste. Those years put "layers of toughness on him," Hurdle said.

Taillon's turnaround was remarkable, but it was taken day by day. He discovered a lump on one of his testicles on May 2, the night before his last start in Cincinnati, and met with doctors over the following days. On May 8, he had surgery at Allegheny General Hospital.

He rejoined the Pirates on May 16 at PNC Park, playing catch and doing cardiovascular exercises. Less than two weeks later, he was pitching in Minor League games: first for Altoona, then two more for Triple-A Indianapolis.

"It's a scary thing. I think baseball would be the last thing on a lot of people's minds," said Pirates starter , Taillon's friend and roommate. "He said it: It's therapeutic for him to be out here and be back to normal."

Or his "new normal," as head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk put it. Taillon has undergone blood tests and scans throughout his recovery, checking his markers to make sure he is in good health, and that will continue for at least two years. He has not beaten cancer, but he is beating it.

"There's still a lot of uncertainties lingering, because this is a nasty disease. But the way Jameson's handled this, the way his body's responded to the attack is astonishing," Tomczyk said. "That's a tribute to what he's done leading up to this. … It's tough to put the right adjective to this because there's so many to describe what a human being Jameson is."

While Taillon's fastball and curveball made for a tough night for Colorado's hitters, there was at least one person in the Rockies' dugout pleased to see him back on the mound Monday night.

"I don't know if it was planned or if it was destiny or what," Bettis said, smiling. "I think it's really cool. It's exciting I get to see him go through it and make his first start back. That's a huge privilege."