Brian Daubach remembers the moment Taylor Jordan first told him his elbow hurt mid-2011 season. Class A Hagerstown was in Augusta, Ga., and Jordan was throwing a bullpen session in between starts amid a strong season. Jordan complained of discomfort, and Daubach sent him to trainers and doctors for evaluation. The Nationals tried rehabbing Jordan’s injury, but once that failed, the right-hander faced a similar fate to a growing number of pitchers: He underwent Tommy John surgery and awaited an arduous rehab, his development as a prospect stalled by a year.
But barring any last-minute changes, Jordan, 24, will climb the mound Saturday at Citi Field against the New York Mets to make his major league debut in place of Dan Haren, who is on the disabled list. It will be the culmination of a stunning and impressive rise through the Nationals organization: from an unheralded 2009 ninth-round pick from the community college near the team’s spring training complex to another Tommy John surgery survivor to a prospect with the funky delivery who jumped from high-Class A to Class AA then straight to the majors in two months.
“Before he got hurt, he was throwing the best of his career,” said Daubach, now Class A Potomac’s manager. “He made the all-star team in Hagerstown. His velocity was really up. He’s really put himself on the map and going the right way. Anytime you have [Tommy John surgery] as a pitcher, it’s going to be an uphill battle. Taylor, I think, really grew from that. It’s a lot of of tough days.”
In a minor league system that was thin on starting pitching, specifically at the higher levels of the minors, Jordan’s meteoric rise is an encouraging development. Jordan — who is from Merritt Island, not far from Viera, and attended Brevard County Community College, also the former school of San Francisco Giants Manager Bruce Bochy — began the season at Potomac. It was his fifth season in the Nationals minor leagues and his first uncapped year in his recovery from elbow surgery. From the start, he was dominant. He was further removed from the lingering command issues, a side effect of the new ligament.
Jordan used his pinpoint control, hard sinker, diving change-up, developing slider and sharp focus to mow through the Carolina League. He posted a 2-1 record and 1.24 ERA over six starts with Potomac, struck out 29 batters and walked just six in 36 1/3 innings. His sinking fastball sat around 94 miles per hour and topped out at 97, diving straight down as it neared the strike zone. But what made him most impressive?
“His ability to throw strikes with all of his pitches and not having any type of fear to throw any pitch at any time and in any count,” Potomac pitching coach Chris Michalak said. “At this level, guys try to shy away from contact and try to miss bats. Taylor was going out there trying to get guys to hit his pitch.”
By May, he was promoted to Class AA Harrisburg. The results were even better. Jordan’s ERA was a minuscule 0.83 ERA over nine games, eight of them starts. He struck out 43 batters and walked nine over 54 innings. His combined strikeout-to-walk ratio this season is a remarkable 4.80.
“What he does so well is that as he’s going forward he finishes the same,” Harrisburg pitching coach Paul Menhart said. “And three of his pitches come out of the same slot. That’s advantageous for him right out of the get-go because hitters don’t know what’s coming.”
Jordan’s coaches believe he will continue to succeed because of his pinpoint command. For a sinkerballer, he strikes out a fair amount of hitters because of he can paint both sides of the plate and attacks batters. “He’s just as happy as going out there and throwing a six-pitch inning and three weak ground balls as he would be striking out the side,” Michalak said.
His slider is still a work in progress. His change-up, however, has improved dramatically, dips like a split-finger pitch and keeps left-handed hitters in check; he has held them to a .188 average this season. “His change-up has come a long away,” Daubach said. “It’s really good now.”
Jordan’s delivery has also made him stand out. As he steps and throws towards home plate, he brings his right arm back and turns his wrist and forearm out, almost as if he is showing the ball towards center field. But, according to Menhart, batters can’t see the grip.
“I love guys who have something a little atypical about them,” he said. “That arm action and his ability to release the ball in the same spot, I fell in love with it the first time I saw him throw. [I thought] if he ever really gets it and gets command of the baseball, he could be something really special because he’s so funky.”
Menhart also said Jordan possess an ability to focus intently on only the next pitch, not letting a hit or run affect him. It may help him on Saturday, when he climbs a major league mound for the first time, having bypassed Class AAA Syracuse to help the Nationals when they needed a starter.
“He has an unreal ability to slow the game down,” Menhart said. “Any situation that comes up and he looks at it as a new challenge. A missed call, a good pitch, anything, good, bad or indifferent, he’s ready to make the next pitch. That’s the only thing he focuses on. It’s a very special gift that he has.”