Mature Manner Heralds Mike Montgomery's Turnaround

OMAHA—Once upon a time, Royals lefthander Mike Montgomery's struggles in his first season with Omaha might have been dismissed merely as a natural part in baseball's evolutionary cycle.

You know the tale: Hot-shot young prospect breezes his way through the minor leagues, posting dazzling numbers along the way. Then he hits Triple-A, where the hitters are more experienced and are capable of making the prospect pay for the tiniest of mistakes. His superiors have seen it happen before, and they know the really good ones make the adjustments that will allow them to move on to bigger and better things.

But these days, in the 24/7 scrutiny of the Internet Age, a hiccup or two brings instant concern. So when Montgomery, who ranked as the No. 19 prospect in the game prior to the season, runs up a 5.14 ERA through his first 18 starts for Omaha, people begin to wonder what's wrong.

Nothing, says Omaha pitching coach Doug Henry.

"Mike Montgomery is going to pitch in the big leagues," said Henry, himself an 11-year veteran of the major leagues. "There are no guarantees, but I expect he'll go up there and he'll have success."

It's just that the 22-year-old Montgomery has a thing or two to learn before he gets to Kansas City. He knew that before landing in Omaha in April, and he knows it even better now.

"I've had some struggles with command, with adjusting to the league and with facing hitters who are older—and many of them have been in the big leagues," Montgomery said. "Guys here are a lot more patient.

"As a pitcher, I've always been able to rely on my stuff to get hitters out, to get guys to chase pitches out of the zone and let them get themselves out. I've had to figure myself out as a pitcher. It's been a good experience, and I'm looking to finishing strong."

Signs Of A Turnaround

Montgomery's season might have hit a low point in a June 19 start at Round Rock in which he surrendered 10 hits and nine runs in three innings. Four of the hits left the park.

Afterward, the Storm Chasers decided to have Montgomery sit out a start. Henry stressed it had nothing to do with Montgomery's most recent performance. At that point, the lefthander was on pace to pitch 150 innings this season.

He had not thrown more than 110 since being selected by the Royals out of a high school in Newhall, Calif., with the 36th pick in the 2008 draft. He threw just 93 innings in 2010 when he missed nearly two months with a forearm strain.

"We had been talking about shutting him down before that start," Henry said. "(The Royals) do that with younger arms that haven't pitched a lot of innings. I talked to him after that start, and he was fine with it.

"It fit into how our rotation was setting up anyway. His arm responded—he's back to throwing it 93, 94 (mph). Before that, he probably was 90, 91."

In his first start after the layoff, Montgomery held Albuquerque to two hits in 6 2/3 innings of a 6-0 win. He followed that up with two solid starts against New Orleans, holding the Zephyrs to a run in five innings on July 6 before giving up three runs—two on a wind-aided homer—in six innings of a July 15 start at home.

What was especially encouraging is that Montgomery did not walk a batter in either start against New Orleans. He issued just three in 17 2⁄3 innings during his three-start resurgence, while striking out 17 and maintaining a 2.04 ERA.

"I've been trying to attack the zone and rely on guys to make plays behind me," Montgomery said. "I don't think I need to go out there and strike everyone out."

Maturation Process

Early in the season, Montgomery tended to try to "out-stuff" opposing hitters. When his command deserted him, he would get himself into trouble with walks—he issued 46 in his first 75 2/3 innings, an unwieldy 5.5 per nine.

"He wasn't attacking the zone," Henry said.

He also wasn't listening.

"He's hard-headed, which is one of his strengths," Henry said. "Some of the best pitchers in the world have been hard-headed. He believes in his ability, and that's great. I don't want to take that away from him.

"I want him to believe in himself and be a little pig-headed out there on the mound. But there are some things he has to learn, and that's where I've talked to him about the need to be more mature. He's maturing as a pitcher right now, and that's been where he's making the biggest growth right now."

The world in which Montgomery and other heralded prospects perform these days can sometimes hamstring the maturation process. Future big league stardom is forecast almost from the day they sign, and often before. They are constantly reminded they are the cream of the minor league crop.

In that regard, Montgomery was not alone on a talented Omaha club. Three of the Royals' finest prospects—first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas and lefty Danny Duffy—all began the year as Storm Chasers before quickly earning the call to Kansas City.

"This group of kids that we've had have been touted as being all-world," Henry said. "That's great, but at some point in time, they have to back it up. It's hard when you get that much hype and you have to live up to it.

"Right now, Mike is just going out there and pitching his game instead of trying to live up to the hype. He knows he has to go to work and get after it."

Montgomery's goal in the final months of the season is to finish strong, regardless of where he's pitching. He said the last thing he can afford to do at this point is fret about the things he can't control.

"I try not to worry too much about my numbers or my past starts," Montgomery said. "This level is here to get better and to learn so that you can do well in the big leagues. That's my goal. All this other stuff—rankings and worrying about your numbers—can be a trap.

"You can't worry about that stuff and what people are saying about you. None of that is going to help you be a better pitcher. What I'm going through is just part of the game. It's a good thing that this is happening here because when I get up there (Kansas City), I want to do well and have success."

Steve Pivovar covers local sports for the Omaha World-Herald