Jameson Taillon stood taller and taller as the night unfolded, the moment making the 6-foot-5 starter seem 7 feet tall. History was in the air near the end of a long, wet and wild day, and the Yankee Stadium crowd responded as only a Yankee Stadium crowd can, trying to drive the pitcher to a place no man had gone in nearly 10 years.
Taillon was right there with them in the eighth inning Thursday night, living the biggest of baseball dreams. Twenty-one Angels up had become twenty-one Angels down, and Taillon had no choice but to think his could be the 24th imperfect arm to throw a perfect game, and the first since King Felix Hernandez delivered one in the summer of 2012.
Sitting in the tunnel, Taillon was thinking about his friends on other teams getting alerts about what was going in The Bronx. The fans were getting louder and louder.
“That fired me up,” Taillon said, “but also made me a little more aware.”
A little more aware that this night could belong to the ages.
“I definitely thought there’s a small chance we can do it,” Taillon said.
The last of the three Yankees to pitch a perfect game, David Cone (Class of 1999), was working the YES Network booth. David Wells (Class of 1998) was undoubtedly downing a cold one or three somewhere, hoping Taillon would match what the two Davids did in the regular season, and what the late Don Larsen (Class of 1956) did to the Dodgers in the World Series.
Taillon noticed his fastball wasn’t losing any steam in the late innings, and he realized his body was just reacting to the possibilities. It was a scoreless game going into the eighth, and it felt as if the fans wanted to forget that the home team needed to cooperate and actually score a run to make this whole thing work.
The pitcher was trying to block out the noise and focus on just winning the damn game. “It’s an interesting thing to fight while you’re out there,” he said. Taillon was talking to himself on the hill, reminding himself about the small-picture tasks at hand. The extreme emotion of the situation?
“If anything,” he said, “you just try to channel it. Use it to execute pitches.”
This was Game 2 of a doubleheader, after rain made a mess of the end of the opening 6-1 victory, witnessed by a couple of hundred fans. Nestor Cortes was at his business-as-usual best in the afternoon, and after spending part of the day watching the radar and thinking he’d get washed out, Taillon went out there and topped it.
There had been a few scares from Angels batters throughout the night, though none as profound as Shohei Ohtani’s shot up the middle in the seventh, fielded expertly by Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who had been shifted over to the second-base side of the bag. Kiner-Falefa made the backhand play on the run and threw across his body from his original shortstop position, bouncing it in there to DJ LeMahieu to get the out. When Kiner-Falefa did what he did, manager Aaron Boone said, “you start letting your mind go there a little bit.”
The fans were standing and chanting and anticipating, bringing late October to the first week of June. Taillon got Mike Trout to fly out to left, leaving him six outs to get. Six outs from immortality.
And then history went poof in the night. Jared Walsh led off the eighth by hitting Taillon’s 0-2 four-seamer to the right of a sliding Kiner-Falefa, who couldn’t come up with the backhand. Walsh turned it into a double, and the crowd groaned before breaking into applause. Two batters later, after tweaking his ankle covering first, Taillon surrendered an RBI single to Kurt Suzuki.
He didn’t give the Angels a second run, and the fans near the dugout stood and cheered for the starter after he came off the field.
Once the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, a Texas high school sensation selected after Bryce Harper and before Manny Machado, Taillon had overcome a ton to get to this point.
He had endured not one, but two Tommy John surgeries on his elbow, and neither was the most alarming medical procedure of his career. One night in the spring of 2017 he felt some swelling in his testicle. Cancer, the doctor told him. After the surgery he posted on Twitter, “Today I lost a piece of my ‘manhood.’ But today I’m feeling like more of a man than I ever have.”
He was back on the mound five weeks later, leading the Pirates to a victory over Colorado. So the Yankees knew the kind of fighter they were getting when they traded for him last year. They knew they were getting a pitcher who would give himself the best chance to succeed after missing the 2020 season.
Taillon shortened up his delivery and strengthened his legs to ease the stress on his elbow, and his new mechanics have made him a new man. “Health is the main goal,” he said after his trade to the Yankees, “but I think performance will be a really good byproduct of it.”
Performance was a great byproduct Thursday night, when Anthony Rizzo drove home the winning runs and made Taillon a 6-1 pitcher with a 2.30 ERA.
“It just felt like one of those nights we were going to make it happen,” Taillon said.
It was a night when a 6-5 starter stood 7 feet tall.
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