In 2014, the top-ranked South Carolina baseball team started its season 12-0 before a three-game series against Brown. The Gamecocks demolished Bruno in consecutive games, 13-0 and 8-0, before the last tilt of the weekend.
Enter Christian Taugner ’17.
It was the first-year’s first career start, and it was a baptism-by-fire: facing off against a team that averaged just over eight runs a game.
Taugner was undaunted, giving up a single run in seven innings pitched. Unfortunately for him, the Bears were unable to score their first run of the series and fell 1-0 to their heavily favored opponent.
But it was quite an introduction to collegiate baseball for the commanding righty.
“The big thing for me was not to get nervous,” Taugner said. “I usually don’t get nervous going into (a game). The key thing was to throw the way I always do, which is spotting up and not worrying about speed, and things just happened the way they did.”
He finished his first year at Brown almost the same way he started it, with an impressive seven-inning shutout outing against Yale that gave him his second win in eight starts.
Little did Taugner know that his 10-strikeout performance would be his last in a Brown uniform for over 22 months.
Taugner pitched in the Northwoods League the summer of 2014, a circuit comprising teams in the Midwest United States and southern portions of Canada. Taugner excelled there as well, earning a 3-1 record with a 3.04 ERA in 47.1 innings pitched — he even earned the win in the league’s All-Star game, throwing one inning of scoreless relief.
But that All-Star appearance would be his last in 2014.
“Everything was going well,” he said. “Then, after a start, I threw a bullpen and my arm was feeling pretty bad, so I had to go home and get an MRI.”
Though the initial MRI did not indicate a problem, Taugner was reassessed his winter break in 2014-2015, and that MRI revealed a tear in his UCL. Two days later, Taugner had his surgery.
“I did not feel like I was getting overused or overthrowing,” he said. “It was just something that resulted from a natural wear and tear on my arm.”
A torn UCL is characterized by a slow, painstakingly long rehabilitation process that sidelines a pitcher for at least 12 months. In this case, it cost Taugner both his spring and summer seasons in 2015.
In 2014, Taugner led Bruno with a 2.39 ERA, ranked 131st nationally and fifth in the Ivy League. For a team that recorded an ERA that ranked 254th out of 301 teams in Division I, Taugner’s exceptional performance was an outlier, especially for a first-year.
What struck Head Coach Grant Achilles in Taugner’s rookie season was his remarkably calm disposition, even in situations that would normally rattle a first-year.
“He’s a pretty special player,” Achilles said. “When you’re looking at him on the mound, you can’t tell if he’s off or if he has his best stuff.”
Taugner’s assuredness showed in his first three starts: Following his performance against South Carolina, he threw back-to-back seven-plus inning starts, giving up just one earned run in each outing. March 22, 2014 marked Taugner’s first win in a Brown uniform, as he struck out eight and allowed zero walks in an 8-2 win over UMass Lowell.
All season, Taugner let up more than two earned runs only twice in eight starts — a tough, four-plus-inning start against Princeton in which Brown gave up six additional unearned runs and a six-inning, four-earned-run performance against Dartmouth that resulted in a 7-6 win for the Bears.
Taugner’s performance against Yale was a tour-de-force, as he struck out double-digit batters in seven innings, walking one and giving up a mere five hits. He had saved his lone shutout for last, capping off Brown’s first two-or-more-win series with the Elis since 2011.
But for the 2015 season, Brown lost its best pitcher, resulting in a season that saw the Bears register a 7.14 team ERA, 281st in the country.
“It was tough,” Taugner said. “I just wanted to do anything to help my team, to be out there. I was at every practice and tried to help the younger guys out, doing charts — just being there for the team and supporting them as much as I could.”
“It was a huge loss just in terms of innings pitched but also his poise on the mound,” Achilles said. “He had to sit and watch, but he contributed by working with younger guys and picking up on little things in the game.”
Taugner also had to watch from the sideline as his friend and mentor Dave St. Lawrence ’15 finished his Brown pitching career.
“Dave really helped” Taugner in the rookie’s first season,Taugner said. “We would always throw together or run together, just talk baseball. We would talk about outings or the upcoming weekend.”
Taugner had to work on himself as well, trying to get back to full health as quickly as possible so he would not miss any additional time in 2016 or beyond.
“It’s been a grueling process for him, but there’s been many milestones along the way,” Achilles said. “Every step, there’s been a certain degree of anxiety, but he’s gotten over the hump.”
Now, Taugner is back and ready to take on the 2016 season with an arm that has “been holding up pretty well with no problems,” he said. “It seems like it’s on track to getting where it was before the surgery,” he added.
“Christian’s a microcosm of the journey of the entire team over this year and a half that I’ve been the coach,” Achilles said. “It’s been up and down, but it’s made us stronger.”
The only new element to Taugner’s game will be recently hired pitching coach Jonathan Grosse, who has only been in the fold for a little over a month.
“We get along pretty well,” Taugner said. “He keeps things short and sweet and only tells you what you need to do, throwing pointers here and there on what you’re doing well. I think (the relationship) is only going to grow throughout the season.”
Other than that, “it’ll be the same, confident Christian Taugner,” Achilles said. “And on the back side of his rehab, he might be back better than ever.”
With that in mind, the Bears have their eyes set on the prize.
“Honestly, the OMAC season — which is our season before we start playing — is probably the best I’ve seen in the past three years,” Taugner said. “Everyone’s just working hard towards our goal, and that’s to win the Ivy League.”
“That’s when the real season starts,” Taugner said. “The nonconference games are fun and all, but the Ivy League season is the only thing that matters.”
The Bears only lost two every-day field players to graduation coming into 2016, but four of their top six pitchers in innings pitched left Providence in 2015.
Taugner and his 52.2 innings from 2014 — which would have led the team last year — should be able to fill much of that void.
“Everyone’s doubting us, which is fine,” Taugner said. “I think we’re going to fly under the radar. We have a great team this year: a lot of good upperclassmen and some underclassmen that will have an impact.”
He’ll take the ball opening day for Brown against Bucknell on March 4, his first appearance in a Brown uniform in 679 days.
“I couldn’t tell you what I’m going to be feeling that first day,” Taugner said.
“I feel like I might be nervous, but after a couple of pitches into the game I’ll go right back to where I was,” he added. “I’m just excited to play.”