Jameson Taillon’s start to his four-year deal with the Chicago Cubs largely has been forgettable.
A left groin strain and time on the injured list two weeks into the season spiraled into a five-start stretch that produced 21 earned runs in 17⅓ innings. Encouraging moments have been fleeting for the 31-year-old veteran, with the Cubs believing in his track record as a big-league starter with a career 3.84 ERA and 107 ERA+.
“I’ve been just grinding trying to find it,” Taillon said Friday. “After you come to a new team and organization, you just want to impress and you want to prove that you’re worth the commitment that they gave you. I feel like up until this point I haven’t been doing that. I haven’t been pulling my weight.”
Taillon delivered his best outing in a Cubs uniform with a tone-setting performance in a 2-1 win Friday against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park.
The Padres managed only one baserunner, on an infield single, through five innings. They finally put a runner in scoring position in the sixth. Third baseman Patrick Wisdom had no play on Xander Bogaerts’ one-out dribbler off Taillon that hugged the grass to avoid crossing the foul line — courtesy of the 61.7-mph exit velocity — to bring home the runner from third.
The Cubs’ often maddeningly inconsistent bullpen didn’t allow Taillon’s performance to go to waste. Brandon Hughes entered to register the final out of the sixth and struck out Jake Cronenworth to start the seventh. Julian Merryweather (two-thirds innings), Adbert Alzolay (one inning) and Mark Leiter Jr. (one inning) shut out the Padres to close the game.
The Cubs (25-31) won three of their last four one-run games after beginning the season 2-10 in such situations.
“Now we go,” Taillon told manager David Ross after the victory.
Getting Taillon on track takes on greater importance with the rotation taking an injury hit. The Cubs put Justin Steele on the 15-day IL before Saturday’s game, retroactive to Friday, and recalled catcher Miguel Amaya from Triple-A Iowa. Steele was diagnosed with a left forearm strain, having exited his start Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Rays after three perfect innings because of forearm tightness.
Hayden Wesneski will start in place of Steele while he’s on the IL, Ross said. The expectation is Steele will miss only two starts and be on the IL for a minimum stint.
Friday’s version of Taillon can help the Cubs win a lot of games.
Shortstop Dansby Swanson, whose solo home run in the fifth proved to be the decisive run, understands how Taillon’s offseason signing could weigh on him. Swanson invoked a common phrase his wife Mallory tells him frequently: “Stop trying, just start being.”
“You can put so much internal pressure on yourself that you’re trying so hard instead of just being yourself,” Swanson said. “That’s something that is really tough to navigate through at times. But we all learn each and every day in this life and I feel like he’s handled it so well. He’s been a true pro. One of my favorite teammates I’ve had, and for him to be able to come out and have some success tonight is a sign for good things to come.”
Taillon wants to better harness his strengths, which means attacking more with his four-seam fastball and utilizing his other pitches off it. Entering Friday’s start, his four-seam fastball usage was the lowest since his 2016 rookie season. Taillon and catcher Yan Gomes teamed up the fastball to account for 35% of his 75 pitches thrown against the Padres.
“Instead of trying to narrow things down, we were trying to go too far with everything,” Gomes said. “It was just a matter of him remembering who he was as a pitcher, remember what got him here and the kind of guy he is. That fastball plays big time.”
Taillon didn’t walk a hitter while two of the three hits allowed failed to leave the infield. Taillon’s outing, his ninth of the season, marked the first time the Cubs won a game he started.
“That’s the best I think I’ve seen him since spring training,” Ross said. “Hopefully he’s able to build off that and stabilize our rotation on the backside.”
Coming off his May 20 start in Philadelphia — a 2⅓-inning nightmare in which he surrendered eight runs — Taillon and the Cubs delved into his stats. The breakdown of his four-seam fastball and cutter usage highlighted an out-of-whack balance between the pitches and how it could be affecting his effectiveness.
“When I’m pitching well, the four-seamer is at the foundation of everything that I do,” Taillon said. “Not to say we’re not going to throw (the cutter), but just kind of get back to who I am. Attack, find pitches that I can cut to big parts of the plate to and just be aggressive with those.”
Few players understand as well as Gomes as to how a bleak season can turn into triumph. Gomes and the 2019 Washington Nationals were 24-33 entering June before an 18-8 month helped propel them to a 93-win season, the National League wild-card game and, ultimately, a Game 7 win over the Houston Astros in the World Series.
But that doesn’t mean it has to be all business in the clubhouse.
Drew Smyly repeatedly crinkled a brown paper bag in his hand as he walked by the postgame media scrum surrounding Gomes at his locker. Moments later Edwin Ríos passed, shuffling his feet to create a squeaky noise that briefly interrupted Gomes’ breakdown of Taillon’s four-seam fastball.
“The interview really isn’t about me,” a grinning Gomes said toward Smyly and Ríos.
Their attempts to mess with Gomes provided a lighthearted moment in the afterglow of a great win. It’s reflective of the group’s steadfast belief in their potential despite the Cubs’ uphill climb.
“This clubhouse hasn’t changed, this clubhouse isn’t going to change,” Gomes said after the exchange. “Yeah, May was a tough month for us. But we’re not hanging our heads. Nobody is feeling bad for us. We know the kind of team that we have here. The division is not running away right now, so we’ve got to keep control of what we’ve got in here and keep fighting.”
It’s a long season. The Cubs have enough veterans in the clubhouse, including seven World Series champions, to know what it takes to get into the postseason. June will provide a reality check on the Cubs’ playoff aspirations.