For millions of Americans who were fortunate enough to remain gainfully employed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home became the new normal. Commutes and water-cooler chit-chat were replaced by Zoom meetings and casual everydays. As vaccinations were rolled out at breakneck speed this year, there was much talk about employees returning to the office. When should they come back? At what capacity? For those who finally did return, there were strong emotions that wavered from one moment to the next. The triumphant feeling of stepping through the office doors for the first time in over a year was in stark contrast to seeing a desk calendar still stuck on March 2020.
Jameson Taillon expected a range of emotions when he returned to work on April 7. The 29-year-old pitcher hadn’t felt the rush of plying his craft in nearly two years -- a product of arm troubles more so than the pandemic. Physically, he felt more than ready. And with a career that already had featured enough ups and downs -- incredible triumphs and crushing adversity -- Taillon figured he would have no trouble maintaining his composure. First time pitching at Yankee Stadium? Try beating cancer. Putting on the pinstripes for the first time? Sure beats being told you need Tommy John surgery -- again.
There was one thing that caught Taillon by surprise on his first day back, though, a feeling no pitcher would ever expect to miss.
“I haven’t been pissed at myself in a while,” Taillon said after surrendering two solo home runs to the Orioles in an otherwise sharp 4 2/3 innings. “In a weird way -- I obviously didn’t miss giving up home runs -- but I missed that competitive fire and that edge. When you’re rehabbing, that’s impossible to mimic. It’s impossible to get in Spring Training, it’s impossible to get in a live BP setting or a bullpen. So you never enjoy doing that, but I did miss that competitiveness of me versus you, me versus a hitter.”
It was a night full of bright sides, but here’s one more: With the way he looked on the mound, striking out five of the final seven batters he faced, Taillon might not have to worry about getting upset with himself too often.
Scouts were enamored with what they saw coming out of The Woodlands High School in 2010, a big, 6-foot-5 Texan with great stuff and the pitching IQ to match. Taillon had gone 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA as a senior, striking out 114 batters in 62 2/3 innings.
“He is a power arm with quality-now pitches,” said then-Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, who selected Taillon with the No. 2 overall pick, sandwiched between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. But while those two stars would reach the big leagues just two years later, Taillon’s path to The Show was not so smooth.
His first three years as a professional went pretty much according to plan. Taillon worked his way up to Triple-A in 2013, the same year that he pitched for Canada -- his parents both hail from Ontario -- in the World Baseball Classic. Then Tommy John surgery in April 2014, coupled with a sports hernia in 2015, wiped out his next two seasons. But Taillon hit the ground running in 2016. He dominated at Triple-A, and by June had reached the bigs. When Pirates teammate Gerrit Cole was placed on the injured list, Taillon filled in with eight scoreless innings of two-hit ball against the Mets at Citi Field for his first career victory.
“Let me tell you, this is one of the toughest guys,” said former Yankees and Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli, Taillon’s main batterymate in Pittsburgh. “I remember this guy took a line drive in the head -- right at the back of the hat, on the MLB logo. He got up and just kept pitching, and the line drive was like 100 miles per hour. It’s crazy how he can control his mind. He doesn’t let the emotions control him, he controls the emotions.”
That mental fortitude was never more apparent than in 2017, when Taillon felt some discomfort in his groin and eventually received a diagnosis of testicular cancer. A week after undergoing surgery, he was on the field performing light activities. Two weeks out, he threw his first bullpen. On June 12, five weeks to the day after the operation, he tossed five scoreless innings in a win against Colorado.
While that start at PNC Park and his big league debut will always remain with him, Taillon isn’t just trying to ingratiate himself with Yankees fans when he says that his Bronx debut was “up there with all those.” Sure, he hoped that it was the start of a successful new chapter in his career. But it was also a chance to finally close the book on the darkest and most challenging part of his journey.
“More than anything, I mean, this is going to sound kind of cheesy, but I’m just excited to be a part of the Yankees and to go out onto the Yankee Stadium mound and get to work,” he said. “I’m ready to put the rehab in the past, and I’m ready to contribute to this team and go out there and compete and take the ball every fifth day. That’s just a new excitement level there.”
In 2018, the Pirates were finally seeing the pitcher they believed they had drafted eight years earlier. Following a January trade that sent Cole to Houston, Taillon ascended to the role of staff ace, and he played the part flawlessly. That season, “Jamo” threw a one-hit shutout in his second start, and from May 27 through the end of the season, he never allowed more than three earned runs in any of his 22 starts, finishing 14-10 overall with a 3.20 ERA.
Through his first seven starts of 2019, though, Taillon seemed to be searching for the feel on his pitches. He had set such a high bar the previous year that everyone expected it was just a matter of time before he figured out what was wrong and fixed it. On May 1, in an Interleague start against the Rangers in his home state of Texas, Taillon still hadn’t fully rediscovered his command, but when then-Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle took him out in the seventh with the Bucs ahead, 6-3, no one could have predicted that it would be his final appearance in a Pittsburgh uniform.
He walked off that sun-splashed mound into what he would call the “ultimate low point” of his career. Confusion reigned as elbow troubles emerged. He would give it some rest and then try to ramp up again, but the elbow just wouldn’t respond. With little progress over the course of the summer, Taillon confronted the reality that he needed a second Tommy John surgery -- a diagnosis that is often a death knell for pitchers’ careers.
“You have those doubts,” he said. “In the back of my mind, I’m well aware of what the history for two-time Tommy John guys is like. There are some guys in the big leagues who have done it. But, you know, I want to be one of the positive statistics there.”
Taillon committed himself to an altogether different kind of rehab, breaking down his mechanics piece by piece until the spare parts littered the garage floor. He worked with a small army of experts -- from the Pirates’ training staff to the pros at the Florida Baseball Ranch in Lakeland to former coaches and teammates who were willing to examine the video snippets Taillon would send them of his progress -- as he rebuilt his delivery from scratch.
What emerged on the mound at Yankee Stadium 707 days after his previous appearance was a fully transformed pitcher. Understanding for the first time how to use his lower half to generate velocity (and ease the burden on his arm), Taillon looked nothing like the pitcher he had been. Utilizing a much shorter arm swing than the whip-like motion he displayed in Pittsburgh -- a change that has yielded fantastic results for White Sox ace Lucas Giolito -- Taillon struck out the first batter he faced, Baltimore center fielder Cedric Mullins, who tried to bunt at a 95 mph full-count fastball. The next batter, fellow cancer survivor Trey Mancini, grounded out to third on an 87 mph slider. With the Yankee Stadium crowd providing Taillon with his first two-strike clap, he got Anthony Santander to pop out to short on an 81 mph curveball. Three up, three down, three different out pitches.
“I thought he looked really good,” DJ LeMahieu said after the game, a 4-3 loss in 11 innings. “The secondary stuff was really good, and his fastball looked like it was pretty live, so I thought it was a really good first start for him, and I’m excited to continue to play behind him and watch him compete out there.”
Taillon cruised through his first three innings, retiring all nine batters he faced. He kicked himself after the game for serving up a 1-0 changeup that Mullins blasted over the wall in right-center to begin the fourth -- “Inexcusable … getting beat on my fourth-best pitch.” And the 0-1 fastball that Santander barreled for a homer later that inning just caught too much of the plate. But mistakes were to be expected after such a long layoff. It was how Taillon responded -- striking out the next batter after each long ball he allowed -- that showed he was up to the challenge. He had a new delivery and a new pitch mix to go with it, but the mental toughness that was part of his repertoire for so long was still there.
“He’s a competitor,” said catcher Gary Sánchez. “And that’s part of the game, you know? You’re going to not execute a pitch, and they’re going to hit a homer. The important thing to do there is just to turn the page right away and make the adjustment, and to me, he was able to do that.”
The Yankees wisely are not pushing Taillon as he regains his footing. They were happy to let Cole pitch the fifth game of the season on normal rest and wait until the sixth game to unveil Taillon. But No. 50 hardly looked like someone easing his way into the swing of things on his first day back in the office. From the time Taillon threw his warmup pitches to Sánchez, with the haunting, howling harmonica strains of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” playing over the public-address system, up through his final walk off the mound after 74 pitches, his game face was on. There was no time during those 4 2/3 innings to reflect on past adversities or to ponder future successes -- it was all business. It wasn’t until he reached the end of the dugout after coming out of the game and saw his coworker Cole, the longtime friend who understood better than anyone how monumental the night had been, that Taillon finally relaxed, cracking a smile from ear to ear.
“Extremely grateful,” was how Taillon described his feelings after the game. “I’ll never take a day in a big league uniform for granted, that’s for sure.”
He knows that when all is said and done, the back of his baseball card won’t look anything like what he envisioned the day he was drafted. But he points to pitchers such as former teammate Charlie Morton who have reinvented themselves along the way and made the most of the back end of their careers. Taillon feels good, and he believes that he has a lot of innings -- quality innings -- in his arm. He wants to be someone that other pitchers point to one day and say, “Look what Jamo did. Maybe I can do that, too.” In the eyes of those who know him best, he has already earned that recognition.
“Just the fact that he’s on the mound again after years of battling so many things, that guy is a hero, man,” Cervelli said. “I think if he retired today, his name would be in baseball forever because what he has been through is crazy.
“The only thing I can tell Yankees fans is, you have an amazing pitcher, but you have a better human being. Enjoy this guy for as long as you can because it’s going to be fun.”