CHICAGO — Jameson Taillon has been a punching bag for Chicago Cubs fans over much of the season. That’s what happens when a pitcher signs a four-year, $68 million deal and posts an ERA pushing 7.00 in his first 14 starts.
But Taillon didn’t waver. He dug into what was wrong and worked hard to correct his issues. It hasn’t all been perfect, but since a dominant start at Yankee Stadium on July 7, Taillon has a 3.57 ERA over 14 starts, 26th best in baseball over that span. During that stretch, Cy Young contenders Justin Steele (3.52), Kevin Gausman (3.69) and Spencer Strider (3.82) have each produced similar results.
Taillon worked six shutout innings on Friday afternoon, allowing just four hits (all singles) while striking out seven Rockies in a 6-0 victory. Taillon hadn’t walked many batters of late (4.9 percent walk rate in his previous 13 starts) but issued four free passes. Still, he worked through traffic and kept Colorado at bay while his offense went to work.
“The goal is to always not give up runs,” Taillon said. “But today especially, I was in the mindset of can’t let these guys score. I knew I had some guys in the bullpen that can back me up, so I would have rather gone four with zero than six with three on a day like today. Got in some traffic early with some walks, which is a little uncharacteristic. But was able to just navigate it and make pitches when I had to. It wasn’t easy but we found a way.”
This nice stretch doesn’t negate what happened early this season. Taillon will be the first to tell you he has not been good enough this year. But over his last 14 starts he’s been doing largely what he’s done his entire career: limit damage and eat innings (he’s averaged over 5 2/3 innings per outing over that stretch). And in one of the biggest games of the year – every game until they’re eliminated or have clinched is the biggest game of the year – Taillon stepped up.
“It’s been a little up and down for me all year,” Taillon said. “I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m at a place where numbers don’t even matter, it’s about helping this team get wins down the stretch. I told myself that coming to the park today. This team went out and got me for a reason. I have an opportunity to go out, prove them right and have a good game on a day like today when we really needed it. It felt good.”
Taillon was well aware of the situation the Cubs were in. His team once held a large lead in the wild-card standings. But a 3-10 stretch pushed the Cubs out of the division race and into the third spot where they’re battling with the Miami Marlins and Cincinnati Reds — two teams that hold the tiebreaker over them — for that final playoff berth.
Taillon isn’t the only one turning the narrative on a rough season. Seiya Suzuki has been doing so emphatically over the past six-plus weeks. It was in early August that Suzuki sat for a stretch of games after numerous at-bats where he looked lost at the plate. By Aug. 7, Suzuki’s wRC+ had dropped to 95 and he was repeatedly second-guessing his swings and finding himself in between.
But since taking that time off, Suzuki has been on a torrid stretch. He’s slashed .353/.407/.700 in his last 167 plate appearances and pushed his season wRC+ to 124. That puts him in a similar range as players like Pete Alonso, Austin Riley and José Ramirez.
“I wasn’t able to contribute to the team the first half,” Suzuki said. “So I’m doing whatever I can to (help) the team. We’re going into the end of the season and we only have so many games left. All these games are meaningful and I’m glad I’m getting my confidence back at the right time.”
With Cody Bellinger not as locked in as he had been for much of the season, Suzuki taking over and carrying the offense has been a blessing for this team. That he was able to push through such lows and emerge as one of the better bats in the game is as impressive an accomplishment as any.
“Confidence is a powerful thing,” manager David Ross said. “Look at Belli, right? He’s been great in the past, had some bumpy years and then gets off to a really good start, gets confidence in himself and has a phenomenal year. I think you’re seeing Seiya come into his own, get really comfortable and confident.”
After a dreadful road trip, the hope was to clean up against a weak Pittsburgh Pirates team. Unfortunately for Cubs, after the offense struggled on the road, it was the pitching’s turn. Despite scoring 27 runs over the three-game set, the Cubs lost two of three with two of their better starters (Justin Steele and Kyle Hendricks) taking the mound in the two losses. But they can’t dwell on those missed opportunities. Doing so would keep them from attacking the day. They have an opportunity to still make the playoffs and with each win, those chances grow. Their poor play of late has made the task significantly harder, but they know what they have to do.
“I think we were hoping to get the homestand off on a better note,” Taillon said. “Here’s a fresh series and fresh start. Just done with the past for me and focused on today and how we finish. We still have an opportunity in front of us to make some noise and find our way into the playoffs. That’s all you can ask for at this time of year.”
(Photo of Seiya Suzuki: David Banks / USA Today)