On the half-hour drive up to the Dell Diamond in Round Rock, I threw on Dirt Farmer to mentally prepare myself to write a sincere piece drawing comparisons between the death of Levon Helm, whose music I loved, and the death of Mike Montgomery's prospect star, whose potential I loved. After a rocky first inning in which Montgomery walked two and struggled to find the strike zone with half of his 20 pitches failing to find the strike zone, I had no reason to believe that I wouldn't still be writing that piece.
By the end of the seventh inning, any notion of needing to conjure up a prospect obituary was dead and buried.
It is probably instructive to look at that first inning. In that inning, Montgomery threw 20 pitches. Of those 20 pitches, he threw his fastball at least* 18 times. Of the 18 pitches that were definitely fastballs, ten missed the strike zone. He started off the inning by walking Julio Borbon on five pitches. Two pitches later, Montgomery induced what should have been a double play ball off the bat of Luis Hernandez--yes, that Luis Hernandez--that Johnny Giavotella got into his glove and flipped to Tony Abreu who failed to catch the ball. The error was credited to Abreu, but it didn't look pretty on either end. On the next pitch, Montgomery broke Leonys Martin's bat on a fastball in, inducing a grounder to Giavotella who got the force at second. Express first baseman Michael Bianucci followed Martin's example and went after the first pitch he saw, shooting a flare single into shallow centerfield, scoring Borbon. Designated hitter Brad Nelson weakly tapped the only curveball thrown in the first up the first-base line, which Montgomery fielded and threw to first for the out. Facing Matt Kata (who will basically be on the Express until the day he chooses to hang up his cleats as he's married to Reid Ryan's sister-in-law) next, Montgomery missed on four straight pitches, with the last two appearing to just miss up and away. With Joey Butler up next, Montgomery finally recorded his first strikeout of the evening.
*I say "at least" because I was sitting in the 13th row behind home plate and was sitting too high to be able to tell if his pitches were breaking at all. On one pitch in the first the stadium radar sign in the outfield failed to register a speed. It is likely that the one question mark in the first was in fact a fastball as it was his first offering to Joey Butler, who fouled it off.
That was a long paragraph largely because it was a fairly long inning--Montgomery's longest of the night. He was undermined by his defense to be sure. Had Giavotella and Abreu successfully completed the exchange, Montgomery likely would have gotten out of the first having spent just eight pitches on the first three batters. Regardless of what his defense should and shouldn't have done, Montgomery was missing Clark's spots fairly frequently with his fastball, which was sitting 89-92 and touched 93 twice in the Butler at-bat. The one definite curve he threw clocked at 77 and induced extremely weak contact from a guy coming off a 2011 season in which he hit 24 homers and slugged .501. Sure, 29-year-old Brad Nelson is a long ways away from the days in which he was considered a top prospect, but he can hit in Triple-A.
Montgomery's second inning went significantly smoother despite the fact that his strikes thrown stayed at 50%. There were three pitches in this inning that didn't have speed read-outs on the sign out in left center, so I am unable to identify the first two pitches to Yangervis Solarte and the first offering to Julio Borbon. Everything he threw in the second that I can identify was a fastball. In the second, it sat 90-92, once hitting 94 and once reaching up to 96. He struck quasi-prospect Tommy Mendonca out swinging on a 2-2, 94 mph fastball. He then induced a 2-0 pop foul to the catcher, and after missing in (presumably with a fastball) he got Borbon to chop a grounder to Abreu for the final out of the inning.
Facing the order for the second time through in the third, Monty started to mix in his secondary offerings a bit. Here, his change-up made its first verifiable appearances, sitting in the 81-83 mph range. His fastball was coming in a lot harder in the third, only twice registering below 93. It was sitting 93-95 and touched 96 once. With the change-up looking good, he was able to set up a high fastball at 95 that Bianucci was unable to lay off of for his second strikeout of the inning, bringing his total up to four. For the other two outs of the inning, he endured a seven-pitch Luis Hernandez at-bat before inducing a grounder to short and got legitimate Cuban prospect Leonys Martin looking on a 95 mph heater after two fastballs at 93 and a possible curveball that was in the dirt low and away.
After three innings, his pitch count was at 46 with a K/BB of 4/2. For the first time in the game, he had thrown more strikes than balls in an inning with 10 of his 16 pitches landing in the zone. He mixed in three change-ups, one curve (with a possible second), and the rest were fastballs.
With the offense having spotted him a 7-1 lead through the top of the fourth, Montgomery could really relax. Just as he did in the second and third innings, Montgomery sent the Express down in order in the fourth. Facing Nelson for the second time, he threw a 90 mph fastball in off the plate, then got consecutive called strikes--first on another 90 mph fastball, then on a 76 mph curve--before getting a swing-and-miss on a second straight curve, this time at 78. Kata popped a 2-1 offering (no mph reading) to shallow left-center field where Terry Evans made the catch with ease, and Joey Butler finished an eight-pitch at-bat with a ground out to Abreu at short.
After four, he sat at 62 pitches with a 5/2 K/BB. Nine of his 15 pitches went for strikes.
He needed just eight pitches to get through the fifth, despite facing four batters. With Mendonca coming up first, he mixed in all three pitches in a four-pitch strikeout swinging. Solarte grounded to short on the second pitch he saw, Borbon ripped a single past a diving Clint Robinson, and Hernandez popped a likely off-speed offering into the Express dugout which Kevin Kouzmanoff snagged.
Through five, his pitch count was a much more preferable 70. His fastball was coming in pretty consistently at 91 in the fifth, but he was mixing in his off-speed stuff with a lot more consistency in this inning. Two of the eight pitches were unidentified, but I'd guess they were both change-ups. He threw one definite curve at 76, the knockout pitch to Mendonca. Having added another strikeout to his line, his K/BB had moved up to 6/2. Of his eight pitches, only two were balls.
The sixth inning was very reminiscent of the one that came before it. Seven pitches. Seven strikes. Four fastballs, two change-ups, one curve. Once again, the once curve was the punch-out pitch, this time to Bianucci. Sandwiching the K were two grounders, which were fielded easily by Giavotella. Montgomery's fastball was registering at 91-93 this inning, his changes came in at 81 and 84, and the curve was a 77 mph puzzler that left Bianucci standing there, bat on shoulder. For those keeping track at home, his pitch count was at 77, and 42 of those pitches had fallen in for strikes.
Despite only needing 12 pitches to get through the seventh and having thrown a mere 89 total pitches with the inning in the books, it would be Montgomery's last. Living in the zone again, he threw nine strikes to three balls. With his fastball sitting 90-92 and touching 93 once, he got Kata to line out fairly weakly to short on a 2-1, 92 mph fastball. Butler followed with a double to the deepest part of the field, the gap in left center field. Mendonca chopped a 76 mph curve to second, advancing Butler to third, marking the Round Rock's second straight two-pitch at-bat. Solarte grounded the first pitch he saw up off the mound up the middle, plating Butler before Montgomery recorded his final out, getting Borbon to ground out to second on an change at 82. He threw the change twice this inning, both at 82, and mixed in two curves, one at 76 and one missing at 73.
Just like with his Omaha counterpart from the previous night (Ryan Verdugo), the Round Rock Express had serious problems squaring up what Montgomery had to offer them. Where the Express had been sending Verdugo's pitches skyward weakly, ten of the 21 outs Montgomery recorded were on the ground, with the should-have-been double play ball in the top of the first also coming on the ground. With seven more outs coming via the strikeout, only four outs came in the air, one a weakly hit liner to short and two more weak pop outs that never traveled further than 90 feet from the plate. While their starting pitcher was in the game, the Omaha outfield touched the ball five times. One was a double that was ripped in the seventh. One was a screamer that Borbon pulled past Robinson in the fifth. Righties Bianucci and Kata (switch-hitter) both sent weak flares to shallow center. The last time was a grounder ripped up the middle.
With only one high profile prospect in the line-up (Martin) and a line-up that otherwise consists of organizational filler with a smattering of Quad-A players and pseudo-prospects like Julio Borbon, Joey Butler, and Tommy Mendonca, Montgomery coasted. After two innings with an equal amount of balls and strikes thrown, Montgomery began finding the strike zone more consistently from the third inning on and eventually got his strikes thrown to 64%. He worked down in the zone with a lot of success. His fastball command was shaky early on, but he only missed with four fastballs from the fourth inning on. His curve consistently found the strike zone, missing only two of the verifiable eight times it was thrown. With the change-up, he actually missed the zone more than he hit it.
Obviously, this is just one start, but after roughly a year of disappointment, seeing Montgomery finally put together a pretty dominant start was a breath of fresh air--hell, having anything in Royals Land going right is aberrant this year--and for at least a couple of hours helped the world, or at least this writer, forget about the death of Levon Helm.