While pitching a summer-league game three years ago, Jameson Taillon of The Woodlands (Texas) High carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning, at which point one of his high-80s fastballs caught too much of the plate and was lined up the middle, where it smacked off his forehead and ricocheted some 40 feet toward first base.
As a golf ball-sized lump began swelling a half-inch from his right temple, Taillon, still on the ground, mustered two questions:
"Is the guy out?" Yes, the first baseman had, in fact, caught the ball.
"Can I keep pitching?" Uh, no. The paramedics urged him to go to the emergency room and, fearful that he might slip into a coma, instructed his mother to check on him every few hours during the night.
Taillon, a fierce competitor, was back on the mound two weeks later. Over the course of that summer between his freshman and sophomore years at The Woodlands High, he added about five miles per hour to his fastball. It has continued to tick upward -- now a senior, he can dial it up to 99 while routinely sitting between 94 and 97.
While Taillon (8-1 with 114 strikeouts and a 1.79 ERA in 62 2/3 innings this spring) is the best high school pitcher in this year's draft, shortstop Manny Machado (.639 average, 12 home runs and 68 RBIs in 29 games) of the Brito School in Miami is widely considered the best high school position player. With the Nationals undoubtedly selecting phenom Bryce Harper No. 1 overall in Monday's MLB amateur draft, Taillon and Machado will be the likely targets for the Pirates and Orioles with the second and third picks.
Taillon, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound flamethrower from suburban Houston, is a classic Texas power pitcher in the mold of Josh Beckett and Roger Clemens and could be a future ace; Machado (6-3, 190 pounds) is a five-tool infielder who has the defensive skills to stay at short but could move to third base if he fills out his lanky frame.
Machado and Taillon teamed with Harper on the U.S. 18-and-under national team that won its first gold medal at the Pan American Junior Championships in Venezuela last fall. The defining moment of Taillon's young career came in the gold-medal game against Cuba. He remembers the frenzied atmosphere of baseball in Latin America, with horns and drums providing the soundtrack, and that many of the Cuban fans remained seated during the American national anthem.
Taillon struck out the side in each of the first two innings, sandwiched around a pair of base runners, but rain moved in after the second and he endured a 35-minute delay. The coaching staff, which planned its tournament rotation to ensure that Taillon started the gold-medal game, feared that it would lose its ace, but the big right-hander stayed loose by stretching with pliometric bands and lightly throwing in the bullpen.
He returned to the game, but the baseball was slick. Taillon couldn't grip his spike curve, his best off-speed pitch, so he began pounding the strike zone with sliders instead. So effective was his slider that day -- he struck out 16 batters in 7 2/3 shutout innings -- that he says it has become his best out pitch.
"That was the most dialed-in I've ever been," Taillon said.
In that game Machado helped key the Americans' six-run seventh-inning rally. After being pounded by curveball after curveball by the Cuban starter all game, Machado singled to left field, the second of eight base runners in the inning.
"He's very patient at the plate," 18U coach Garye LaFevers said of Machado. "He never carries a previous at-bat over to the next one. It's all for the moment. He's focused on what's going on in that at-bat, whether the last one was a home run or a strikeout."
Machado showed interest in baseball from about the time that he could move around on his own two feet, running around the house with gloves, bats and balls. His uncle Geovanny Brito, who helped his mother raise him, said, "On weekends when all his other friends wanted to play or go to the pool, all he wanted to do was go to the park and hit and catch ground balls." Some of Machado's earliest memories were of his uncle hitting him "buckets and buckets of balls" and of taping games off the television of his idol, fellow Miami-raised shortstop Alex Rodriguez, which Brito would use as improvised instructional videos.
LaFevers, who lives and coaches in Arizona, likened Machado to current Angels infielder Brandon Wood, who, despite his current major league struggles, was a first-round pick out of Horizon High in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2003. "When Brandon was in high school, he was a bigger kid, like Manny, for what we think of as a high school shortstop -- very good arm, very soft hands," LaFevers said. "I could see him staying at short as long as he doesn't put on too much weight and lose his foot speed. He has an outstanding range, from going to his left to his right."
Machado admitted that he has only dabbled in some basic weight-training to date, though that'll change in a professional organization (or, if he somehow doesn't agree to a contract, at Florida International, where he has signed a scholarship). He has also reportedly been working out with Tony Valdez, a Miami trainer who has been previously employed by Manny Ramirez, Jose Valverde and Edgar Renteria.
Taillon (pronounced "TY-own") shared the same love of baseball from an early age, when he would pester his father to play catch in the yard or his mother to play inside the house with a tennis ball. But Taillon was a power-hitting corner infielder through Little League and didn't begin pitching seriously until he became a teenager. He impressed early enough that he became the first freshman pitcher selected to the varsity at The Woodlands, a Houston-area baseball power. Even Kyle Drabek, the 2006 first-round pick who was the centerpiece of the Blue Jays' trade of Roy Halladay, didn't make the school's varsity until he was a sophomore.
Taillon began receiving attention from colleges early in high school but had his coming-out party for pro scouts at the suburban Atlanta World Wood Bat Association 17-and-under tournament, sponsored by Perfect Game. It's primarily a showcase for rising seniors, but Taillon's summer coach, Mike Rutledge, needed another pitcher to eat up some innings for his Houston Kyle Chapman team and brought Taillon along. The right-hander made his first start on one of the complex's back fields before a few family, friends and college coaches, but his stuff was electric that day, and word spread quickly through the facility. Taillon recalls heading out to warm up for the third inning, looking up and suddenly seeing that the stands were packed with radar-gun-toting scouts.
Even after Taillon began soaring up major-league draft boards, Rutledge said that his prodigy remained loyal to his club team. By returning to pitch and attracting scouts to each start, his teammates would benefit from the increased exposure.
"When he's there, he's never more than just a player on the team," Rutledge said. "He's never bigger than that, no matter what his opportunities are."
Considering that Taillon's three older siblings are a law student, a Ph.D. student and a medical resident, he has felt the pressure to excel academically as well, which he has done well enough that he even gave serious consideration to graduating high school a year early in order to enroll at Rice. Doing so would have helped him work toward his college degree and made him draft-eligible out of college a year earlier, but he later rejected the idea, due to the allure of his draft standing out of high school and the desire to enjoy his senior year with his friends.
One National League area scout said Taillon needs to work on throwing his fastball to the inner half of the plate and not overthrowing with runners on base but also noted that, if not for Harper, Taillon could have been the first high school righthander drafted No. 1 overall and that he compares favorably to Beckett and Clemens at this age.
"He's got as good an arm as those guys," said the scout, who also raved about Taillon's makeup. "He's a better kid than he is a prospect, and he's a great prospect."
While the unique talents of Harper make him the presumptive No. 1 pick, clubs looking for traditional future franchise cornerstones -- say, a power-hitting shortstop and a fireballing ace -- need look no further than Machado and Taillon.