Memories accompany Taillon's emotional return to Pittsburgh

Former Pirate takes loss with Yanks, but moved by ovation, thoughtful recognition

July 6th, 2022

PITTSBURGH -- was drafted by the Pirates second overall in 2010, one pick behind Bryce Harper. He spent more than a decade in their system -- working his way to his MLB debut in ‘16, weathering two Tommy John surgeries, beating cancer and becoming an influence to fans through it all.

The stars aligned for Taillon to pitch the first game of a two-game set against his former club on Tuesday night, the first time he’s started at PNC Park as an opponent. While the result didn’t reflect in his favor, with the Yankees falling, 5-2, it was a special return for the 30-year-old righty, who was acquired by the Yankees ahead of the 2021 season.

As Taillon trotted out of the visitors' dugout, the Pirates’ sound system blared “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin -- his long-time walk-up music -- with a videoboard tribute that drew a standing ovation.

“I’m not used to having my walk-out song played in a visiting stadium, so that was cool,” Taillon said. “Hopefully, I can get a copy of the video that was playing. I’d like to have that for the rest of my life.”

The start to Taillon’s evening was strong, with two strikeouts and a groundout in the first, proving to manager Aaron Boone that any emotions his starter had wouldn’t get to him. But by night’s end, Taillon’s pitching line was one of his shakiest of the season. He was charged with five runs in 5 1/3 innings, including home runs from Daniel Vogelbach and Jack Suwinski -- two of the many new faces in the Pirates' clubhouse since Taillon departed.

Taillon didn’t appear to be visibly amped up, but all of his pitches’ velocities were above average, including a 1.6 mph increase on his cutter. However, he noted that the velocity increase has also come alongside mixed results, as he now owns a 6.16 ERA over his past six starts.

“It’s a results-oriented league,” Taillon said. "But at the same time, I feel great, I feel healthy, I’m making a lot of quality pitches. But it feels like I’m getting burned every outing on a couple of pitches with runners on, especially. So kind of a give and take.”

The struggles were frustrating for Taillon, but the sense of happiness returning to his former home of so many years was clear. Boone has been there. Before the game, the Yankees’ skipper recalled returning to Cleveland after leaving in free agency in 2006, working to beat a team he still had very strong ties to.

“It can be everything from very settling to motivating to awkward -- all of it,” Boone said. “All of those emotions that you’ve kind of got to deal with.”

Not to mention that, on the whole, the 2022 season has been a reflection of the promise Taillon has shown all along when he was healthy in Pittsburgh. Entering Tuesday, he had a personal streak of nine wins on the mound while pitching to a 3.30 ERA over that span of 14 starts, and his 3.24 FIP proves that’s no fluke.

“For somebody like him to finally have some success that people knew he could have has been cool,” said closer , who followed Taillon from Pittsburgh to New York in 2021 via trade. “Like I said, he’s overcome so much. I think it just makes it that much more special to him and the people around him.”

Taillon’s mark on Pittsburgh persists to this day. For instance, a local coffee shop, Commonplace Coffee, still sells the “Lending Hearts Blend” he collaborated with the roastery to produce, with part of the proceeds going to Lending Hearts, a nonprofit focused on supporting people with cancer, especially children and young adults.

“He’s a guy that always does the right thing,” Holmes said. “He’s always there for others. He’s a great guy to be around.”

So with a sellout audience of 37,733 -- the largest crowd Taillon remembers experiencing in Pittsburgh since Opening Day in 2018 -- showing their appreciation, he couldn’t ask for a better homecoming.

"I went through a lot here,” Taillon said. “I made lifelong friends that I’m lucky I kept in touch with. I’ve been in these people’s weddings. I’ve watched families grow. It’s definitely good to be back. This city always treated me really well."