Chicago Cubs

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."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Chris Hine (Chicago Tribune) and Jordan Bernfield join David Kaplan on the panel. Jon Lester, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras all work out with the Cubs before their game. Which player’s return with have the biggest impact down the stretch?

Plus, the guys discuss how many snaps Mitch Trubisky should take with the first team, debate who won the big Cavs/Celtics deal and Scott Paddock drops by with the latest NASCAR news.

Listen to the SportsTalk Live Podcast below. 

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.