BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates’ 12-9 defeat of the Braves on Friday at LECOM Park brought more of a regular-season feel than any of the previous 20 Grapefruit League games.
That is, a regular-season feel under the best of circumstances for the Pirates.
“That might be the best I’ve ever felt,” Jameson Taillon said after plowing through five efficient, one-hit innings, backing up a potent performance by a lineup that resembled what we’ll see when the games start to count.
Taillon continued: “I just felt like my fingers were ‘over’ the ball. I was spinning it well. Putting it where I wanted, especially the fastball.”
Not that Taillon’s control is ever much in question — we’re talking about a guy who didn’t walk more than two batters in a major-league game until his 18th start — but the foundation of his success to date has been built around, well, being around the plate.
Regardless, starting a game with 11 consecutive strikes like Taillon did Friday will always catch one’s attention, just as much as the five strikeouts or the 59 pitches it took for him to get through his outing. (In fact, he had to throw about 20 more in the bullpen to get to his prescribed volume.)
“Today, he was amazing,” Elias Díaz said of Taillon. “He executed his pitches. He executed the plan.”
The plan Friday was to continue to emphasize Taillon’s approach to left-handed hitters. Fortunately for him, Braves manager Brian Snitker obliged by placing five lefties in his starting lineup, including four in a row from the second through fifth positions.
After lefties bashed Taillon for a .313/.375/.458 line last season, adjustments are probably necessary. That means getting the two- and four-seam fastballs inside to lefties, in order to open up the outer half of the strike zone for Taillon’s changeup.
“That’s something I need to work on, is out pitches to lefties,” Taillon said. “I didn’t do quite as well against them as I could have last year.”
That’s true, no doubt. Taillon’s rookie season featured a more manageable .269/.308/.423 line for lefties, so something was clearly different last year. Clint Hurdle said sometimes those performance fluctuations can be due to “the stuff you carry into a particular year,” a year that was interrupted by testicular cancer treatments, of course.
Taillon was on board with that notion, especially as someone who seems to relish the cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and hitter.
“I think a lot of it was mechanical,” he said. “I only had a specific number of pitches I was able to execute. Hitters figure that out and they can eliminate some pitches.”
There was no elimination of pitches Friday, with Taillon touching 97 MPH with the heater and spinning curveballs his old friend Díaz characterized as “nasty.” Perhaps the quality of stuff gave him the confidence to stick to the aforementioned game plan. Starting with that early run of accuracy, he threw 15 of 18 first-pitch strikes overall, many of them under the hands of Atlanta lefties.
“It’s very important,” Díaz said of the inside fastball. “It’s opening up the zone for the out pitch, the changeup. Fastball in and up is one that is so difficult for the lefty to hit.”
Iván Nova is the opening day starter, but Taillon likely needs to take a leap into a leadership role if the Pirates are to surprise some prognosticators this season. Whether meaningful progress has been made will be determined from April through September, but March has been as good as could be expected for the 26-year-old.
Taillon said his next step will be to simply “compete” in his final two outings of the spring. If his mechanics remain as sharp as Friday’s, he should barrel into that first scheduled regular-season start, April 2 at PNC Park.
As for the approach to lefties, that’ll be an evolving situation.
While he struck out five, Taillon also walked two, both in the fourth inning and both issued to left-handers (Preston Tucker and Ryan Schimpf). Hurdle called those walks “questionable” from an umpiring standpoint, adding that he wouldn’t make too much of the platoon splits on a day like Friday, when Taillon combined his “aggressive mindset” with the kind of full arsenal upon which a team can dream.
“He had all his weapons working today,” Hurdle said. “When he does, it doesn’t matter, lefty or righty.”