BRADENTON, Fla. — Jameson Taillon knows Comerica Park will be like a pressure cooker next Thursday.
Taillon will be the opening-day starter for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who open the season in Detroit.
But those nerves will be nothing like what Taillon felt when he took the mound last June.
Just a month removed from a testicular cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgery last year, Taillon pitched five scoreless innings on June 12 to beat the Colorado Rockies.
“I just told myself, ‘Take a step back, soak it all in — good or bad,” said Taillon, who is 13-11 with a 3.98 ERA over two MLB seasons. “I get to play baseball tonight. I’m back doing what I love. I got a little emotional there, internally. I might not show it, but pitching opening day, I’ll have butterflies.
“The challenge is how can I positively get those butterflies to help me.”
New York Yankees Hall of Famer Yogi Berra famously once said “90 percent of the game is half mental.”
Because the Pirates dealt Cole and 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, who was shipped to San Francisco, outside expectations aren’t that high for the Pirates. The players remaining in the Pittsburgh clubhouse aren’t worried what others think entering the 2018 season.
“A lot of it’s mental,” Taillon said in front of his locker. “Baseball is a game of failure. A 3.00 ERA gets you to an All-Star Game potentially. Hitting .300 can get you to the Hall of Fame, so that’s failing seven out of 10 times. You have to deal with failure really well.
“As a starting pitcher, you have four days off between when you pitch and, if you have a bad game, you have to sit on a bad game for four days.
“That’s not the easiest thing in life. Imagine having a tough day at work and not being able to go out and prove yourself the next day. You have to sit there for four and let it marinate a little bit. It’s tough what we do.”
Taillon has taken over as the Pirates ace after the team traded 2015 All-Star Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros in January.
“I can see we’re losing 200 innings; we’re losing a fierce competitor, talented guy,” the 26-year-old pitcher said. “But for me, that also says the front office has faith in us younger guys to take that next step.
“I see why they have faith in us,” Taillon continued in the clubhouse at LECOM Park. “There’s a ton of talent in this room. There are a lot of guys in here you just want to bet on. Josh Bell, for example, I’m not going to bet against him getting better and taking that next step. Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl, I’m not betting against those guys. I foresee a lot of guys taking the next step forward this year.”
Taillon’s bout with cancer last year put things in a new perspective for him.
“If I used to talk to a kid that’s affected by cancer, it’s like, ‘What the heck do you say?’ But now I’ve realized it’s important to just have a conversation with somebody,” Taillon told me as part of the Home Run On Wheels podcast. “You can touch them on a personal level. You don’t have to talk about cancer. I try to not even go there with kids or other people I talk to. But how can I make them feel important? How can I make a difference in their life?
“I don’t have a script or anything. I’m definitely a lot more comfortable talking to anybody about any situation now.
“I say something like, try to celebrate the successes, the good days you have,” Taillon added. “Hitting a milestone; try to celebrate that. If you have a bad day, don’t judge yourself. It’s OK to get down a little bit, but really try to focus on stringing good days together — whether that be with doctors, whether that be with your family; whatever you need to do.
“If you put a good day in today, you won that day. Go into tomorrow, how can I put in another good day? And you just string them together and you’ll be in a lot better of a spot.”