October makes everything about baseball feel big, and nothing more so than emotions. We live for the big moments—the emotional highs and lows—and so the playoffs can be a time during which quiet, sturdy performances get easily overlooked. They shouldn’t be. And left-handed long relievers and spot starters are not usually the glamour players, but Cubs lefty Mike Montgomery deserves the spotlight on him for his nearly flawless five innings of work last night. His presence in the game was unlikely to begin with,but he made the most of it.
In the eighth, when the trio of Travis Wood, Hector Rondon, and Aroldis Chapman—the relievers most likely candidates to be remembered as heroes, ordinarily—not only failed to get through the inning with the one run lead intact, but put runners on for Chapman to allow to score, Justin Grimm got the nod to stem the tide, and he did. Following Kris Bryant’s 9th inning heroics to tie the game, enter Mike Montgomery. At the bottom of that inning, Montgomery has one real job: Don’t let San Francisco score. Even minute failure here is costly. Oh, and keep doing that for as many innings as it takes. And again, if you slip up at all, the game ends on your watch.
With so much at stake in the bottom of the ninth, Montgomery was polished, for the most part. He enticed an easy groundout from Denard Span before walking Brandon Belt, but Belt was doubled up at first base on a flyout to Albert Almora, Jr. in right field (a play worth dissecting in its own right), and the inning ended without the Giants scoring.
In the 10th, 11th, and 12th innings, Montgomery only struck out one batter. He instead kept the Giants bogged down in groundout after groundout. Of the twelve outs that he recorded, eight of them were the result of a ground ball. He effectively stymied San Francisco’s offense by keeping the ball down and relying on the sturdy defense behind him. Smart pitching for a reliever who’s suddenly been called upon to throw as many innings as he has in previous games as a starter rather than coming out of the bullpen.
How then did Montgomery make this work for so many innings? He has a five pitch arsenal that he has relied upon this season. It’s largely about his four seam fastball, but he also throws his arching curve nearly two-thirds of the time. Last night, he stuck to his usual spread of pitches, but leaned on his curve and cutter a bit more than ordinary, and with good reason. He hit the zone for strikes nearly 80 percent of the time with the cutter, and out of the fourteen times he used that pitch, Giants batters swung at it eight times and missed it thrice. Only his fastball got any swings and misses otherwise. As expected, these grounders came most of the time on pitches low in the zone, and the two doubles he surrendered in the 13th inning were on pitches left high and in the middle. Take a look, from Brooks Baseball:
The two orange plots smack in the middle of the zone and sitting up nice and high for the batter represent the doubles that were the dagger for the night. The Brandon Crawford double came first, on a curveball that Montgomery had attempted to set up with a pair of fastballs, but he hung it and Crawford jumped on it. Joe Panik’s game-ender came nearly the same way—Montgomery used a cutter and a fastball to set up his curve, but Panik resisted the curve when it missed the zone. Then Montgomery made the mistake of piping his fastball, and the game was over.
Before these two at bats, Montgomery pitched with quiet brilliance. He threw four impeccable innings and then floundered against two batters in the end. It’s likely that fatigue got to him in the end (his pitch count of 57 is higher than any relief appearance he’s had otherwise this season), but it’s also likely that in the stretch of that many innings, not every pitch is going to be perfect, and good hitters simply capitalized. But don’t let that drown out the work that Montgomery did through the four innings prior. He was masterfully effective, and in the noise of the postseason, that shouldn’t be missed.
Lead photo courtesy John Hefti—USA Today Sports.