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Bucs both lucky and good in win over Rays

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Pittsburgh Pirates
Jameson Taillon pitches on Thursday night
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates kept the Tampa Bay Rays off of the board on Thursday night and earned a 4-0 victory over their interleague opponents. Jameson Taillon, who made his fourth start since returning from cancer surgery, said that he felt like himself.

Taillon threw 6.1 scoreless innings and threw 103 pitches before manager Clint Hurdle lifted him with two runners on in the seventh inning. Even though he understood why Hurdle yanked him, Taillon said that he felt strong up until the very end.

“I feel like I’m back to where I need to be,” Taillon said. “I feel strong. I’m in shape. My arm is in shape. I’m not getting sore after my starts like I was.”

That’s certainly good news. Given the circumstances, Taillon has been strong since returning from the disabled list and it’s probably about time that we stop mentioning the cancer diagnosis every time the 25-year old righty toes the rubber. While Taillon has said that he will be a vocal opponent of testicular cancer off the field, he has earned the right to be treated like any other player while he’s on the mound.

Which means that no-talent nerds like myself can go back to posting articles on the internet, nitpicking over minute details in an otherwise affective start.

Even though Taillon accomplished every pitcher’s goal on Thursday night by not allowing a single run, the Pirates righty sure made things interesting. Taillon allowed ten runners to reach base - seven base hits, two walks, and a hit batsmen - but stranded them all, continuing a season-long trend of bending without breaking.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle commended Taillon’s guile in high-pressure situations, but noted that continually allowing baserunners is a bad way to do business.

“That thing is going to run out of gas after a little while,” Hurdle said. “At this level, you just can’t keep pitching with men on base or they are going to score.”

Pretty sound logic. And it’s backed up by the stats.

In his ten starts this season, Taillon has stranded 82.4 percent of the base runners he was responsible for. Considering the league average Left on Base Percentage (LOB%) is usually somewhere between 70-72 percent, that could be a problem for the young right-hander going forward if his LOB% regresses to the mean.

In 2013, Jeff Locke’s virtuosic first half, when his 2.15 ERA carried him to an All-Star berth, was buoyed by an 83.3 percent LOB%. That number plummeted to 67 percent when the lefty fell back down to earth in the second half.

That’s not to say that gamblers should be calling their bookies in anticipation of Taillon’s downfall.

Taillon’s BABIP is .313 and his HR/FB rate is around 13 percent, which both suggest that he has actually been a bit unlucky. He keeps the ball on the ground and, generally, is a lot more talented than Locke. (Sorry Jeff Locke fans).

And Taillon recognizes that allowing so many ducks to chill on his pond is an untenable situation. As inspiration, Taillon turned to the words of a Hall of Famer and one of the most cerebral pitchers who has ever thrown a baseball.

“I just saw a quote from Greg Maddux recently that said, when he was pitching, all he tried to do in the windup was keep the ball in the park,” Taillon said. “He made his pitches while there were guys on.”

Maddux used to throw his warm-up pitches from the stretch, so as to replicate these high-leverage situations. Taillon has also adopted that practice.

And, even though I said earlier that I would put the cancer discussion to rest, the Pirates right-hander is only now getting up to full speed. Taillon may have been a bit fortunate on the mound through his first ten starts of the season. Now he can just focus on getting better.

Watson didn’t suck

When Clint Hurdle removed Taillon from the game with one out in the seventh inning, reliever Tony Watson inherited a mess. With runners on first and second and one out, Watson had to deal with Tampa’s two best hitters: Corey Dickerson, one of the American League’s leaders in batting average, and Evan Longoria.

With Watson’s recent track record of failure, one could understand if Pirates Nation unleashed a collective “gulp” as the lefty trotted out from the bullpen.

But the former Pirates closer looked good. Watson struck out the left-handed Dickerson with a high fastball and then attacked the right-handed Longoria inside, forcing an easy popup to end the inning and preserve the shutout.

Watson said he ironed out some mechanical issues, regained some velocity, and, as a result, has a renewed confidence throwing his sinker inside, which should open up the plate against both righties and lefties.

“You’re going to make mistakes at this level, everybody does, so you’ve got to give yourself some room for error by going inside with some conviction,” Watson said.

Harrison keeps getting hit

Two more pitches hit Josh Harrison on Thursday night. The Pirates third baseman was struck first by a fastball in the opening frame and again by a wayward changeup in the bottom of the seventh.

Those hit-by-pitches were the 17th and 18th of the season for Harrison, which places him at the top of this season’s list of frequently plunked players.

Prior to this season, Harrison had only been hit 26 times in his six-year Major League career. While his newfound baseball magnetism has buoyed his on-base percentage to a career high, .377, Harrison said that it’s not exactly the ideal way to get aboard.

“I’m getting on base, which is making them throw pitches, but I do get a little bit tired of it,” Harrison said. “I’m not made of steel.”

Harrison isn’t sure whether or not other teams’ scouting reports say that he needs to be pitched inside, but he does make it a point to put pressure on pitchers whenever he’s on the base paths. Especially with the molten-hot Andrew McCutchen hitting behind him.

“Hit me, I’m going to go,” Harrison said. “They know I’m going to go, so they’re going to throw fastballs to the guy behind me. And you know what? Good luck.”

McCutchen and Harrison each reached base four times on Thursday. Harrison stole second after being plunked in the seventh.