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updated: 8/19/2017 6:34 PM

After long road to majors, Montgomery always willing to step up

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  • Video: A versatile Mike Montgomery

  • Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Mike Montgomery throws a pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers during the first game of a split doubleheader Tuesday, Aug 16, 2016, in Chicago.

      Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Mike Montgomery throws a pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers during the first game of a split doubleheader Tuesday, Aug 16, 2016, in Chicago.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Chicago Cubs' Mike Montgomery heads to first after hitting a two-run double off Cincinnati Reds' Drew Storen during the seventh inning of a baseball game Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, in Chicago. Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward scored on the play.

    Chicago Cubs' Mike Montgomery heads to first after hitting a two-run double off Cincinnati Reds' Drew Storen during the seventh inning of a baseball game Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, in Chicago. Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward scored on the play.
    Associated Press

  • Chicago Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery throws during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Saturday, July 23, 2016, in Milwaukee.

    Chicago Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery throws during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Saturday, July 23, 2016, in Milwaukee.
    Associated Press

  • Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Mike Montgomery delivers to Colorado Rockies' David Dahl in the first inning of a baseball game Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, in Denver.

    Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Mike Montgomery delivers to Colorado Rockies' David Dahl in the first inning of a baseball game Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, in Denver.
    Associated Press

 
 

Whatever It Takes.

After years of grinding it out in the minor leagues, that's pretty much the mantra Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery lives with these days.

You need me in long relief? Done.

Need me to start? I'm there.

Need me to get one batter out? No problem.

Anything to avoid a return to the peanut-butter-and-jelly / Ramen Noodle days that weren't all that uncommon at baseball's lower levels.

"From the time I was 21, I had a bigger ego," Montgomery said, "and then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and Triple-A kind of stinks."

With Jon Lester going on the 10-day disabled list Friday, the Cubs will be asking Montgomery to reprise his starter's role for the ninth time this season. He figures to get the call Wednesday in Cincinnati.

"The unusual part is how he's been able to do both (start and relieve) so well," said manager Joe Maddon. "He doesn't complain about it. He doesn't try to be the GM, the manager, the pitching coach -- he just goes and plays. …

"He's not a crybaby at all and he does see the bigger picture."

And that's because -- after five long years slogging away in AAA -- the picture in the majors is just so darn pretty.

The grind begins: 2011-12

Montgomery, a first-round pick by the Royals in 2008, breezed through the low-level minor leagues and was pitching in Triple-A Omaha by the time he was 21. It didn't take long for the Mission Hills, California native to realize that this was an entirely different level, though, as he went 5-11 and posted a 5.32 ERA.

"I had to learn the hard way: This is not going to be easy," Montgomery said. "This is a tough league."

The next season was a nightmare as coaches asked Montgomery to change his mechanics in an effort to reduce his walk numbers.

"It ended up making it worse, so after a half-season, I switched back and it took me another half season to get back to remember what I used to do," Montgomery said of a year in which he went 5-12 with an unsightly 6.07 ERA. "So that was kind of a wasted season in my mind."

Turning a corner: 2013-14

In December 2012, the Royals sent Montgomery and three others to Tampa Bay for James Shields and current Cubs closer Wade Davis. This change of scenery did wonders for Montgomery, who said he learned a great deal from pitching coaches Jim Hickey and Neil Allen.

This was also the first time Maddon got an up-close look at the pitcher who would record the last out for the Cubs in the 2016 World Series.

"Kind of like a young colt -- just a little bit awkward about what he was doing," Maddon said. "But good arm."

The Rays' AAA club is the Durham Bulls, a city and team Montgomery loved playing for and in. It was during his second season with Durahm that Montgomery's career took off and he realized his major-league dream would likely one day be realized.

"I started 9-1. I'm killing it," said Montgomery, who made the Triple-A all-star team but later injured his elbow and never got called up. "They were worried about my arm and they were out of the playoff race. It was like, 'We don't want to start his (service time) clock.'

"Whatever. I felt like I got screwed because I had an unbelievable year. I was one of the best pitchers in the International League even with the injury."

Twists and turns: 2015-16

Just days before the 2015 season began, Montgomery was traded to Seattle. And after experiencing some of the worst travel situations of his career in the Pacific Coast League, Montgomery finally got his shot with the Mariners on June 2 against the Yankees. His first victory came 11 days later at Houston and he proceeded to throw back-to-back complete-game shutouts in his fifth and sixth major-league starts.

There were rough patches too -- the worst coming when Montgomery allowed 9 runs in 2.1 innings at Boston on Aug. 14 -- and he was sent back to Triple-A Tacoma in September.

Then the 2016 campaign rolled around and the almost unthinkable happened: Seattle told Montgomery's agent that he wasn't going to make the team, and the franchise was willing to sell his rights to a team in Japan.

It was at that point Montgomery had to make a career-defining decision.

"I was like, 'No. I'll just stay here,' Montgomery said. "'I'm out of options. I'll come into Seattle's camp and if they don't want me, there's plenty of guys that get sent to another team.'"

Montgomery proceeded to throw 96 mph in spring training, he made the Mariners and was eventually traded to the Cubs on July 20.

After a bit of a rough start in Chicago, Montgomery was one of the key contributors during the postseason and he appeared in Games 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 of the World Series, recording the save when Michael Martinez hit a weak grounder to third baseman Kris Bryant.

Here and now: 2017

When Montgomery (3-6, 3.64 ERA) takes the mound in Cincinnati, it will be his ninth start and 36th appearance of the season. It will also be his 101st big-league game, 32 of which will have been starts.

Truth be told, Montgomery wants to be a full-time starter. With full command of four different pitches -- fastball, changeup, curveball, cutter -- this is a guy who should get his chance sooner rather than later.

The key will be getting control of the fastball on a more consistent basis.

"Last game especially I've never had more confidence in my fastball," said Montgomery, who threw 4⅓ innings of scoreless relief Thursday against Cincinnati. "So that's one of the things I'm going to focus on is, 'Hey, let's see if they can start hitting my fastball.'

"That's the cat-and-mouse game that you play. I'm not just a 'stuff guy' and I'm not going to overpower you, but I'm going to try and make you beat me on the fastball, and if you can't do that then I don't need to expand to other stuff."

And while losing Lester isn't ideal, Montgomery is taking this next chapter -- even if it's a brief one -- in stride.

"I don't want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace, but it's a challenge," he said. "I'm looking forward to going out there and helping the team win."

• Follow John on Twitter @johndietzdh

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