Mike Montgomery explains the unique pitching culture around Cubs

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery explains the unique pitching culture around Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Mike Montgomery doesn't need a detailed job description of the hybrid role the Cubs envision or a clear idea of when the rotation might need a sixth starter. Just be ready for anything, a lesson reinforced during the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7.

"I like that better," Montgomery said Monday at the Sloan Park complex. "Don't necessarily tell me, because then I don't have time to think about it. Just throw me in there and I'm ready to go."

While Joe Maddon essentially confirmed that Brett Anderson will be the fifth starter – if healthy – the Cubs manager already trusted Montgomery enough to get the final out that ended the franchise's 108-year drought.

Anderson's projected rotation spot is mostly a reflection of his health issues and Montgomery's versatility. The change-of-scenery thing Cubs officials talk up doesn't work on anyone everywhere. Jake Arrieta is the lottery ticket that turned into a Cy Young Award winner. 

But Montgomery is seen as a pet project for Theo Epstein's front office and the pitching infrastructure built by coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode. 

"There's just a culture," Montgomery said, "especially with some of the veteran guys, that creates this pitching-friendly environment where you can learn and you can adapt. You can watch guys that are really good at what they do. 

"You combine that with the information and the scouting reports and talking to the video guys and working with the pitching coach. Obviously, with your mechanics, getting them squared away is important. But I think understanding who you're facing, what they like to hit (is also important). 

"The whole chess match part of the game – it's helped me a lot. It was being out there without a plan and just kind of winging it – and now (it's) putting a plan together.

"That's what these guys do so well. They just have a really good game plan and they execute it better than just about anybody in the game." 

Developing pitching talent at the major-league level is particularly important when the farm system hasn't felt a trickle-down effect yet and the scouting department has prioritized hitters at the top of the draft. 

Not that Montgomery is taking it for granted, but this is the first time he has reported to camp with his spot on the Opening Day roster already penciled into the team's plans. 

Not being on the bubble gives Montgomery the luxury to work on things, focus more on his craft and study how Jon Lester uses certain bullpen sessions to hone his fastball, down and in, down and away, up and in, over and over again.

"I love watching Jonny pitch," Montgomery said. "Being a lefty, too, it's just how consistent he is and how he can execute his fastball when he needs to or make a big pitch. It's kind of looking at them and saying: ‘OK, how can I get to that level?'

"It's cool to be in an environment like that. It really just breeds success for other guys that maybe mechanically aren't there yet, but they have the stuff. Once I get the mechanics down, then you take it to the next level of game-planning."

That's where Kyle Hendricks applied his Ivy League education, using sequencing, pinpoint control and sharp movement to overpower hitters and lead the majors with a 2.13 ERA last season.

"He's got a great memory," Montgomery said. "He can go out there and it's like he's got those reports on the hitters stuck in his head. For me, I've used it as more of a rough guideline if I need to fall back on something or I don't know where to turn in a certain situation.

"It just kind of gives you that safety blanket. You get in a tight spot, you take your chances on what you think is the best pitch. Having that information to begin with is huge."

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Epstein compared Montgomery's career arc to Andrew Miller's when the Cubs made the Dan Vogelbach trade with the Seattle Mariners. Montgomery checked so many boxes, from age (27) to size (6-foot-5) to first-round pedigree (36th overall in 2008) and controllability (through 2021). 

After bouncing around the minors for the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Rays – and the biggest moment of his life – Montgomery will still be a Cubs Way test case.

"We think we're getting him at the right time," Epstein said last summer. "He's certainly not a household name. But we think he's got a chance to take off and maybe be the type of guy that a year from now you couldn't get in a deal of this size. 

"If you wait until they're fully established, sometimes the price tag is so high that they're virtually impossible to acquire. But if your scouts do a good job of identifying the guys who are trending in the right direction – and you're willing to take a shot – sometimes there's a big payoff at the end."

Saturday on CSN: Kyle Hendricks, Cubs face Reds

Saturday on CSN: Kyle Hendricks, Cubs face Reds

The Cubs face off against the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday, and you can catch all the cation on CSN. Coverage begins at 3:00 p.m.

Starting pitching matchup: Kyle Hendricks vs. Robert Stephenson

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World Series thank-yous follow Kris Bryant to Las Vegas

World Series thank-yous follow Kris Bryant to Las Vegas

MESA, Ariz. – Kris Bryant didn’t need to pose for a Crate & Barrel billboard in Wrigleyville or walk a goat around a Bed Bath & Beyond commercial shoot. Cub fans just kept sending him free stuff.

The wedding gifts actually shipped to his parents’ house in Las Vegas, where he honed the swing that landed him on a new Sports Illustrated cover that asked: “How Perfect is Kris Bryant?”   

This happens when you mention your registries on a late-night show with another Vegas guy (Jimmy Kimmel) after leading an iconic franchise to its first World Series title in 108 years.        

So Bryant will be the center of attention in Sin City this weekend when the Cubs play two split-squad games against the Cincinnati Reds. But that spotlight will pretty much follow the National League’s reigning MVP wherever he goes. 

At least this gives Bryant a chance to chill at the pool and organize the house he moved into in January. 

“My mom just kept throwing stuff in my car: ‘Here, take it!’” Bryant said. “Opening all those boxes, I can’t believe how many presents we got from fans. It was unbelievable. Jess is going to have to write all the thank-you notes. I’m just signing my name on them. You have literally like 700 thank-you notes to write.

“I said: ‘You need to just go get the generic thank-you.’ She’s like: ‘No, they took the time out of their day to buy us a present.’ This is going to take her the whole year. So if there’s anybody out there that’s waiting for one…”    

The wait is finally over for generations of Cub fans. Spring training will always have a “Groundhog Day” element to it. But this camp – with no major injuries so far or real roster intrigue or truly wacky stunts – has felt different. As the players get ready for a new season – one without 1908 looming over everything – they can’t escape what they did. 

“Every day something reminds me of it,” said Kyle Hendricks, who will start Saturday in Las Vegas. “Even going to throw in these spring games, when they announce your name and the whole crowd erupts because of the World Series. That wasn’t happening last year. 

“Little things like that make me notice. Something every day is brought to my attention, so it’s still getting used to that part.”  

The Cubs insist there won’t be a hangover effect in 2017, believing that this young group is too talented and too focused to get derailed by distractions and overconfidence. But the Cubs could go 0-162 this season and Bryant would still probably be breaking down boxes for recycling.   

“It’s funny,” Bryant said. “We just put cameras on my house for security and I’ll just look at it sometimes. I’ll randomly see my mom just unloading boxes. I’m like: ‘Mom, what’s going on? Are we getting more stuff?’ She’s like: ‘Yeah, we keep getting more boxes.’”