Taillon sharp in 'memory lane' start vs. Bucs

March 7th, 2021

BRADENTON, Fla. -- thought he said his goodbyes two months ago, closing the Pirates chapter of his professional career and embracing a new beginning in the Yankees’ pinstripes. Then came Saturday, and as he made the familiar turn off 17th Avenue West, the memories rushed back.

For a flash, Taillon was a fresh-faced teenager again, taking his first glimpses of how the big leaguers plied their trade. There were the challenges of instructional leagues, sunny springs and way too many grueling rehabs. Then Taillon snapped back into the present, tossing two scoreless innings in the Yankees’ 3-2 seven-inning Grapefruit League loss to the Pirates at LECOM Park.

“I’ve done that same drive a lot; I didn’t have to pull up my Google Maps to get here,” Taillon said. “I’ve spent a lot of time around here, and I definitely was going down memory lane. It was good to see familiar faces in the dugout, but also the security guards and clubhouse managers. That stuff is all really cool.”

Making his second spring appearance and first start coming off his most recent Tommy John surgery, Taillon scattered two hits and a walk over his 39-pitch effort, striking out four. Taillon set the side down in order in the first inning, then had to pitch out of the stretch in the second, pinning the bases loaded. Taillon’s fastball touched 93.6 mph.

“He took another good step,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who returned to the dugout for the first time since having pacemaker surgery. “He worked himself into a little bit of trouble there in the second inning and he kept making pitches. I thought he executed a couple of really good fastballs to get out of that inning at the top of the zone.”

Taillon expected to have company on the throwback trip, with former Pirates ace Gerrit Cole originally scheduled to start. Inclement conditions prompted Cole to remain behind in Tampa, where he tossed two innings at the Yankees’ player-development complex. That offered Taillon a full view of the spotlight, coming off a quicker-than-expected first outing that lasted only seven pitches.

“I thought it was good work,” Taillon said. “I’m happy we got the game in; I wasn’t so sure with the rain. There are some things I haven’t experienced in a couple of years, like in-game situations -- runners on, holding runners, mixing my temp, mixing my looks to second with a runner there. I had to make some pitches with traffic on, so that was probably the biggest takeaway.”

Todd Frazier and Gregory Polanco logged the hits off Taillon, singling on well-struck liners. As Taillon exited the field in the second inning, having struck out Kevin Kramer to escape unscathed, Frazier shouted at the pitcher: “I’ll take care of your guys over here.”

“It was definitely different,” Polanco said. “He’s been my teammate for like 11 years. He’s probably going to text me after this, but I’m happy he’s healthy. Me and him, we’ve been through some tough injuries, but it’s good to see him healthy. I wish him the best always. He’s my brother.”

Taillon spent most of his 2020 season rehabbing at the Pirate City complex, coming off surgery performed in August 2019. There was discussion of hurrying Taillon back to action late last summer, but the combination of the pandemic and a darkened Minor League schedule effectively stamped the conclusion of Taillon’s Pirates tenure.

“I don’t feel that there’s many better people than Jamo,” said Pirates manager Derek Shelton. “A little bit of mixed feelings, but I’m happy for him and I’m happy for us with how everything has turned out so far.”

With no opportunity to pitch in the Majors last year, Taillon focused his attention on revamping his delivery. He said on Saturday that his four-seam fastball feels more like a weapon, making him more comfortable pitching up in the zone to both sides of the plate.

“His fastball was really sharp, and his breaking pitches were also sharp,” catcher Kyle Higashioka said. “He commanded both sides of the plate and pitched up in the zone. It was good to see how he reacted to getting into a jam. Those pressure pitches are what’s going to pay off during the season.”

It was fitting, then, that Taillon had a fresh opportunity to demonstrate to his former teammates and coaches how far he has come.

“They invested a lot of time and energy to see my rehab through,” Taillon said. “It was a cool feeling for me to get to show them that I’m healthy and I’m back on the field. I hope it was a cool moment for them to get to watch me out there, too.”