Why starting in Cincy is significant for Taillon

March 27th, 2019

CINCINNATI -- Jameson Taillon has had more than a month to think about making his first Opening Day start on Thursday at Great American Ball Park. He’s thought about managing the nervous energy that will come with such an anticipated event. He’s thought about the Reds’ revamped lineup. After his last Spring Training start on Saturday, he started thinking about a game plan.

He hasn’t put quite as much thought into the significance of his first Opening Day start taking place in Cincinnati, but it’s hard to ignore the full-circle connection. It was here on May 2, 2017 -- a “normal Tuesday night in Cincinnati,” as he’s said -- that he discovered he had testicular cancer. And it will be here, nearly 23 months later, that Taillon officially takes his place atop the Pirates’ rotation.

“I’ve come a long way. It’s been a crazy journey,” Taillon said in an interview with MLB.com. “That’s kind of where it started for me. That night was significant in that it changed my life forever.”

Taillon recovered quickly after surgery and returned to the mound five weeks later. Cancer is not even a thought in his mind now, except in the way that he can use his experience to help others. Last month, the 27-year-old stepped away from Spring Training to attend a gala where he was honored by Lending Hearts, a local non-profit organization that supports children living with cancer.

Taillon has grown as a pitcher since that night in Cincinnati, too. It’s easy to forget that, for all the poise and potential he showed, his cancer diagnosis came only 11 months after his Major League debut.

“I feel like I’m in a different place from where I was that night,” Taillon said. “Back when I discovered what I had, baseball-wise, I was still working on establishing myself.”

Now, he more confidently feels like he belongs. He went wire-to-wire in Pittsburgh’s rotation last season, posting a 3.20 ERA in 191 innings over 32 starts and finishing fifth among all National League pitchers in Wins Above Replacement. He has become the Pirates’ Opening Day starter and a representative to the players’ union, positions of leadership that he inherited from Ivan Nova and Gerrit Cole.

“You lose Gerrit [Cole] and you lose [Ivan] Nova, some of those veterans go, it’s up to you. It’s up to the guys that have played under them to kind of carry that torch,” Taillon said. “Take what you’ve learned from them, honor them, and now it’s up to us. It’s our clubhouse.”

The word “our” might be most indicative of Taillon’s leadership style.

When he was named Opening Day starter last month -- an honor manager Clint Hurdle said he earned “across the board” -- Taillon said he felt all of Pittsburgh’s starters were worthy. They watch each other’s between-starts bullpen sessions whenever the schedule allows, offering advice and encouragement. Taillon played catch with Joe Musgrove almost every day this spring, but he also threw with newcomer (and likely fifth starter) Jordan Lyles.

“There’s a deep care from a lot of guys, not just myself. It’s the care of wanting to help,” Taillon said. “I’m not very confrontational, so it’s not confrontational. It’s more about helping. … It’s about being able to ask for help, not just give it. It’s a very different role, but it’s very natural because everyone’s so close.”

Over the last four years, Taillon has rapidly transformed from prospect to rookie to big leaguer to clubhouse leader. His next title might be “ace.”

Taillon took a significant step forward last season after adding a hard slider -- it’s more like a cutter -- to his arsenal. He put together a 2.71 ERA over his final 22 starts and never allowed more than three earned runs in an outing during that stretch. Taillon spent the spring developing his slider -- which he never had a chance to do last year -- and working on his changeup.

He’ll put it all into play on Thursday afternoon, and where better to do it than Cincinnati? He’s come a long way, but this may only be the beginning.

“He’s still just scratching the surface,” Chris Archer said earlier this spring. “Honestly, it’s a lot like when I was with Blake Snell last year. There’s going to be even more greatness in him this year. I can see it.”