It seems for every season that doesn’t amount to a playoff run, it has a moment that when you look back you realize it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The season still goes on as the motions must be gone through, but the season we had once hoped for had already ended. As time goes by you’re able to better identify those moments at the time they happen and you begin tempering your hopes accordingly.
Usually these moments don’t last in our memory beyond the instant they occur as one of our coping mechanisms is to push it from our mind. One such memory has stuck with me through the years. July 26, 2011, umpire Jerry Meals makes one of the worst safe calls in the history of the game giving the Atlanta Braves a 19th inning victory. Here’s the play:
I was watching the game from my bed with only one eye open at about 2am when that happened. I erupted from the bed with an explosion of fury. The emotions from that game triggered the feeling of “uh-oh, this is it… the beginning of the end.” The Pirates went into that game with a record of 53-47. They would go 19-42 the rest of the season finishing with another losing record.
This past week when Tony Watson and the Pirates blew two 9th inning leads in losing back-to-back games in Baltimore, I had that same feeling. I built my emotional walls, pulled myself a half-step back from the team, savored the Penguins run at consecutive Stanley Cups, and began looking ahead to football season. Then I heard Jameson Taillon was starting on Monday.
Not that one pitcher who only gets the ball once every five games can really alter the season that much on his own, but one man’s resilience can certainly inspire. Taillon has displayed a combination of traits in his short career that are rare in the collection and admirable to behold. His history of perseverance through setbacks are well known – from Tommy John surgery in 2014, a sports hernia in 2015, and now testicular cancer in 2017. Through it all Taillon has displayed a rare blend of calmness, confidence, humility, indefatigability, and gratitude.
Taillon has quietly become the ace of the starting rotation. Taillon is the unannounced leader. The veteran Ivan Nova sets the tone with how he aggressively attacks hitters and has quality start after quality start while protecting the bullpen, but Taillon is the ace. Just as Andrew McCutchen being dropped into the six-hole in the batting order has helped him return to form, Taillon’s coming back could provide some stability that helps Gerrit Cole settle into a successful role in the middle of the rotation.
Even though these are professional athletes, they’re still human. Years of pressure can build up over time and get into one’s head. The Penguins’ Marc Andre Fleury will have weeks of brilliance, but has shown even those performing at their best need a mental and emotional break. McCutchen struggled through two months batting third with a batting average below the Mendoza line. After sitting out for a short spell he returned to the lineup batting sixth. Since returning McCutchen’s stat line in 16 games in the six-hole is:
.390 AVG, .479 OBP, 1.123 OPS, 14 Runs, 3 HRs, 12 RBIs, and 10 BBs versus 14 Ks
There is no reason to move McCutchen from hitting where he is. Or, if injuries necessitate it, I’d move him no further up than 5th. With the insertion of Felipe Rivero into the closer role, Juan Nicasio into a set-up role, the call-up of Edgar Santana, the bullpen appears on the precipice of being a strength of the team. With McCutchen’s resurgence, Taillon’s return, Starling Marte’s return next month, the NL Central’s inability to produce a dominant team thus far, one can still remain hopeful for meaningful baseball remaining to be played for the 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates.
Let’s go Bucs!