January 30, 2023

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Taillon (8 scoreless IP) rises to challenge

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ST. PETERSBURG — The suggestion was made among several of the Yankees’ starting pitchers after Nestor Cortes dominated over eight-plus innings in Thursday’s 7-2 win. The exact wording, as Jameson Taillon recalls, was something close to: “Let’s just all just go seven or eight this series.”

As Taillon began to stir on Friday, he remembered the off-hand comment, steeling his mind to match Cortes’ gem. The result was Taillon’s finest performance as a Yankee, hurling eight innings of scoreless, two-hit ball in New York’s 2-0 victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field.

“I guess we could be proving some people wrong,” Taillon said. “And we might be proving the Yankees right for believing in us.”

Gleyber Torres and Matt Carpenter hit fourth-inning homers to provide support behind Taillon, who enjoyed his first outing of at least eight scoreless innings since June 1, 2018, when he was a member of the Pirates facing the Cardinals.

That may as well be a lifetime ago for the 30-year-old Taillon, who has been through the injury ringer, returning from a second Tommy John surgery and a procedure on his flexor tendon after 2019. Most recently, Taillon came back strong from offseason surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right ankle.

“He was great,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who said he gave no thought to letting Taillon try for a complete game despite having thrown only 93 pitches. “He was in control of the game and had a little bit of everything going. Just another great performance from one of our starters.”

Now owning a 2.49 ERA, Taillon has allowed two runs or fewer in all but one of his nine starts this season, equaling Cortes and the A’s Paul Blackburn for the most in the Majors.

“Just being able to take the ball and take my turn in the rotation is big,” Taillon said. “This year, it just seems to me like I’ve found a better pitch mix. I’m sequencing my pitches better, moving the ball around and not letting the hitters keyhole in one area.”

Said Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier: “He was throwing well above-average fastballs, but I feel like they were playing up even more than what the numbers said. I missed a couple that I’d like to have back.”

Now the challenge, answered so adeptly by Taillon, shifts to Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino for the final two games of the series — the first meetings of the year between New York and Tampa Bay. Yankees starters have pitched to a 2.78 ERA through 46 games.

“I think they’ve been the best group to this point in the league,” Boone said. “I caution that with, it’s early and we’ve got to keep doing it.”

Taillon retired the first 12 Rays he faced on Friday before Randy Arozarena hammered a grounder underneath the glove of shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Catcher Kyle Higashioka threw out Arozarena attempting to steal second base, and Taillon faced the minimum until Manuel Margot doubled to open the sixth.

Margot was stranded at second base thanks in part to an excellent defensive play by Torres, who ranged up the middle and snared Mike Zunino’s liner with a lunging, tumbling effort. In the eighth, right fielder Joey Gallo brought in a deep Ji-Man Choi fly ball with a leaping grab at the wall in right-center.

“On a night like tonight, we didn’t hit too much, but Jamo only needed two runs,” Torres said.

The Yankees are enduring a rash of injuries, and the bullpen has not been spared. Right-hander Chad Green needs Tommy John surgery and is out for the season, while the absences of closer Aroldis Chapman and right-hander Jonathan Loáisiga have elevated Clay Holmes into the closer’s role.

Wielding a bowling-ball power sinker with movement that Boone has called “the best pitch in the world right now,” Holmes has been a revelation, now owning a career-best 24-inning scoreless streak after locking down Friday’s save — his sixth.

If anyone can appreciate that success, it should be Taillon. As injured Pirates hopefuls, Holmes and Taillon formed a bond for life rehabbing just a short drive from The Trop in Bradenton, Fla., running out the clock during their endless summers of 2014 and dreaming about what one day could be.

“He’s a video game,” Taillon said. “He’s a guy that always works at his craft; he’s always trying to get better. He’s a guy that you would have bet on years ago to figure it out and become this type of guy. I’m not super surprised at what he’s doing, but it is fun to watch.”

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