By J.P. Antonacci
Canadian Baseball Network
Crossing the 49th parallel proved to be just the ticket for Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Jameson Taillon.
With his Canadian fan club in the stands, Taillon – who was born in Florida but holds dual Canadian-American citizenship because his parents are Canadian – turned in a sparkling outing against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday, striking out seven and allowing two runs over six-plus innings en route to a 4-2 win.
Toronto managed a walk and six hits off Taillon – including Jose Bautista’s third home run in as many games – but could not capitalize against the tall right-hander, who mixed high-90s heat with a sharp curveball to set down Jays batters in order through the middle innings, before giving way to reliever George Kontos in the seventh with runners on the corner and none out.
Kontos promptly dispatched the next three hitters, and Felipe Rivero pitched an uneventful ninth for the save.
Taillon’s first appearance in Toronto went about as well as he could have hoped.
“It was fun. Good environment. I’d come to see games here in the past,” he said. “I remember seeing Curt Schilling pitching against the Blue Jays when I was a kid, and now to be pitching here is cool.”
Taillon’s mother, Christie, who was born and raised in Toronto, and some 40 other relatives and friends were there to cheer him on.
“I didn’t see anybody (from the mound), to be honest, but I knew they were all coming in. The support was strong,” Taillon said. “There were probably some people who don’t follow baseball that closely but they were really excited to see me pitch.”
It was Taillon’s second consecutive quality start after a pair of forgettable outings in which he gave up 17 earned runs over a combined 6.2 innings. But that rough patch was nothing compared to the major challenge the 25-year-old confronted earlier this season.
In early May, Taillon was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and three days later underwent surgery to remove his left testicle.
“That was, obviously, kind of a bombshell,” said Chad Kuhl, a fellow starting pitcher and Taillon’s roommate.
“It’s one of those things that kind of puts everything into perspective. You just try to be there for him, not even as a teammate, but as a human being. Baseball’s really secondary at that point. I just tried to be a friend to him.”
Catcher Chris Stewart said Taillon encouraged his fellow Pirates to keep focused on baseball, which helped them cope, but their teammate’s ordeal was never far from their minds.
“It’s the same as if someone in your family was diagnosed with it. Obviously, a terrible diagnosis, and it hit us all pretty much the same,” Stewart said.
“We wanted nothing but the best. We were going through it with him – when he took the tests and there was a waiting period to find the results, we were all on the edge of our seats waiting, hoping everything passed with flying colours.”
The Pirates celebrated the news that Taillon’s surgery was a success.
“It was a huge relief, not just for him but everyone in this clubhouse as well,” Stewart said.
Kuhl said Taillon asked for privacy when he was first diagnosed, and remained positive throughout his recovery.
“He really made it easy on us to rally around him, because he was rock solid throughout the entire thing. He never really showed that it was getting to him,” Kuhl said.
“Everybody was able to take a step back and be there for a teammate instead of being in your own world – you get wrapped up in your stats and how you’re doing and playing. Everybody put that on the back burner and tried to play ball for him.”
Cancer patients are told to wait a month after surgery before resuming any activity. Taillon was pitching in a rehab game less than three weeks later.
Five weeks to the day after his surgery, he was back on a major-league mound. With the Pittsburgh crowd roaring in admiration, Taillon struck out leadoff hitter Charlie Blackmon and four more Rockies over five scoreless innings to earn the win against Colorado, and notch a major victory against cancer.
“It’s crazy,” Stewart said of Taillon’s speedy return to action.
“I think he was even wanting to come back sooner, but it was like, ‘No, dude. We get it. Take your time.’ He was able to surpass the expectations and not just come back, but come back strong and help the team. It goes to show the kind of person he is, the competitor he is, and how much he wants to help our team win.”
Kuhl said Taillon’s determination to return ahead of schedule was par for the course.
“Just knowing him and knowing all the work and preparation he puts into being a really good baseball player,” he said. “It surprised me a little bit for anybody to come back that quick, but for him, he said it was therapeutic. It was where he wanted to be. It takes a special person to do that.”
Taking on cancer was the latest in a string of challenges for Taillon, who lost two seasons of his young career to Tommy John surgery and sports hernia surgeries, and was struck in the head by a 105 mph line-drive comebacker last July (he somehow was able to stay in the game).
His teammates say Taillon’s attitude has helped him rebound from adversity.
“He’s just mentally prepared and built for whatever comes his way,” Kuhl said. “He already had several injuries that took lengthy recovery. I think it just speaks to him as a person, his mental toughness.”
“He’s mature beyond his years,” Stewart agreed. “It’s crazy. You would think he’s a seven, eight-year veteran. Just the way he handles himself, certain situations, the way he handles pressure. He’s gone through a ton. I think those setbacks that he had to deal with in the past kind of helped him deal with what he had to go through this year.”
Taillon became the highest-drafted Canadian in MLB history when he was chosen second overall in 2010, between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. His stuff has never been in doubt – Kuhl calls Taillon’s pitching arsenal “incredible” – and Stewart has witnessed what he calls Taillon’s “maturation process” kick into high gear this season.
“He’s learning how to pitch, how to approach hitters. I think last year, being his first season in the big leagues, he came up and did really well, but he still had a lot to learn,” Stewart said.
“He used that information and he’s taken it into this year, approaching not only how to attack hitters, but how to handle certain situations. It’s not about throwing your best stuff all the time, it’s about utilizing pitches.”
The veteran catcher cited Taillon’s start on August 6, when he regrouped after a shaky first inning and put his team in a position to win.
“It just goes to show that you’re not reverting back to things that failed in the past. You’re finding a way to succeed, no matter the circumstances,” Stewart said.
“That’s one of the learning processes that he’s overcome quickly. He’s still young, he’s still got a lot to learn, but the sky’s the limit.”