"I've seen rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen."
After watching a Springsteen live show in 1974, Rolling Stone rock critic Jon Landau set off a massive amount of hype with that one sentence. At the time, Springsteen had two poorly selling records. Not long after Landau's comments, Springsteen released "Born To Run", was on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines at the same time and made the leap from unknown singer to rock and roll superstar.
I'm not nearly as talented as Landau, and I'm not a scout with a trained eye, but after watching Royals lefthander Mike Montgomery throw against the Kinston Indians, it was hard not to want to yell something equally audacious. You could watch minor league games every day year after year and never see a better outing. Some of the scouts at Tuesday's game were debating if they had ever seen a minor leaguer pitch any better.
Montgomery dissected, carved up and dominated the Kinston lineup in a 3-1 win for Wilmington. He carried a perfect game into the seventh, allowed just two hard-hit balls all night, didn't walk a batter (he fell behind 3-1 in the count only once) and struck out a career-high 13. And he did it on a 90-pitch limit. He needed just 84 pitches by an unofficial count, throwing 20 balls.
"He was about as good as you can be," Wilmington manager Brian Rupp said.
"It's hard to top that," Wilmington pitching coach Steve Luebber said. "He had three well above-average pitches."
Montgomery had everything working right from the start. The 20-year-old struck out leadoff hitter Jordan Henry on four pitches, all fastballs, including back-to-back 94 mph heaters for the final two strikes. Abner Abreu followed with a four pitch strikeout. He fouled off a 95 mph fastball before swinging over a 75 mph curveball. Montgomery struck out the side by getting Donnie Webb in a five-pitch sequence. He again showed a 95 mph fastball before finishing Webb off with a diving 86 mph changeup.
Three strikeouts, one on a fastball, one on a curveball and one on a changeup. It was a sneak peek at what Montgomery would do all night. Hitters couldn't catch up to his fastball, which meant they had to gear up for it on nearly every pitch. But because he could locate his curveball and changeup early in the count, hitters all too often found themselves facing a 1-2 or 0-2 count. With three pitches to worry about, they were as good as finished at that point. If they geared up for the fastball, their best hope was to foul it off or make weak contact. More often they found themselves flailing against a change or curve.
Just two hitters all night squared up Montgomery. In the fourth inning Abreu roped a liner to second baseman J.D. Alfaro. Then in the seventh inning, Nate Recknagel hit a double off the right-center field wall to score the Indians' only run. Recknagel's double, on a 92 mph fastball, came one pitch after Webb broke up the perfect game with an infield chopper. Webb sped down the line to just beat Alfaro's throw on a ball that Montgomery was mad for not gloving himself. If not for those two pitches, Montgomery would have left with a perfect game, instead he left the game after the seventh with a two-hitter. Fittingly he finished off his final hitter with a fastball for his 13th strikeout.
The curveball that Montgomery now throws is one he started working on extensively last year. He threw a rather unconventional palm curveball in high school. Last year he started relying more and more on a more traditional grip, but the palm curve was still the pitch he was confident he could locate when he needed to throw a breaking ball for a strike.
Montgomery has gained enough feel for the traditional curve to put the palmball back on the shelf. There were still a few curves where he lost the grip and failed to snap them off, but he was generally able to locate his curve for strikes early in the count while also burying it for swinging strikes once he got to a two-strike count. Encouragingly, five of his strikeouts came via the deuce.
"That's a pitch I struggled with in the past," Montgomery said. "I worked on it a lot in the offseason. I was able to throw it even in the count, that's a big help."
Because he could locate the curveball for strikes, he was able to avoid his most common problem. Montgomery's biggest weakness has been his tendency to pile up large pitch counts that have kept him from working deep into games. On Tuesday he needed 10 pitches to get out of the inning on three different occasions, and he didn't throw more than 15 pitches in any inning.
"I don't think I've ever thrown that few pitches with that many strikeouts," Montgomery said. "I just wanted to attack the hitters."
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