John McGrath

Mike Montgomery: The Mariners’ unknown gem with the attitude of a star

Mike Montgomery celebrated his birthday Wednesday. If the first month of Montgomery’s 26th year goes anything like the last month of his 25th year, we’ll be the beneficiaries of a development bordering on miraculous:

A reason to believe the 2015 Mariners can reinvent themselves after the All-Star break.

Montgomery is my new favorite pitcher, and not just because he’s thrown two consecutive shutouts — or as many as he threw in eight minor league seasons. Montgomery is my new favorite pitcher because of the way he took a dugout seat in the top of the eighth inning Tuesday night at San Diego.

He shook his head and said an unprintable word or two — at least I assume the words were unprintable — and wore an angry stare that suggested whatever he was looking at, he was thinking about something else. I was watching this in a restaurant where the television had no volume, so I figured Montgomery was upset at his inability to pitch his second complete game in a week.

But then Montgomery took the mound for the bottom of the eighth and I realized the source of his discontent: The rookie left-hander had surrendered a one-out double in the seventh — the first and last hit the Padres would manage against him — and he regretted the cut fastball delivered over the middle of the plate to Yangervis Solarte.

Rookies making their fifth career start usually aren’t so demanding of themselves. Rookies making their fifth career start usually are praying they’ve shown enough stuff and displayed enough composure to merit a sixth career start.

Montgomery? He’d set the bar higher. He was hoping for a no-hitter.

Full disclosure: I knew nothing about Mike Montgomery when the Mariners acquired him in the March 31 trade with Tampa Bay that cost them fellow pitcher Erasmo Ramirez. A minor leaguer for a minor leaguer is not a transaction that requires regularly scheduled programming to be interrupted, with promises of details to follow at 11 p.m.

Montgomery reported to Tacoma and made nine starts, generally confirming why his career record in the minors is 46-50 with a 4.24 ERA. It wasn’t until Montgomery was promoted for a June 1 emergency start at Safeco Field against the Yankees, filling in for the injured James Paxton, that I checked out his baseball background.

Whoa. This wasn’t some innings-eating farmhand surviving on guile. This was a former first-round draft choice of the Royals, the 36th overall player selected in 2008. More impressively, this was a former first-round draft choice selected out of high school.

Scouts break down draft candidates into four categories: College position players, college pitchers, high school position players, and high school pitchers. College position players are considered the lowest risk with the lowest long-term potential; high school pitchers are considered the highest risk with the highest long-term potential.

Montgomery, in other words, has been on the radar screens of those in the know for seven years.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik is taking some guff — and it’s deserved — for assembling a roster of players who lack the athletic skills to regard Safeco Field as a home advantage. Speedy hitters with a knack for coaxing walks, rangy outfielders with strong arms, those are the components necessary to succeed in Seattle. The absence of such components explains why the Mariners went into Thursday night with a 17-23 record at home and a 19-19 record on the road.

But give Zduriencik this much: he can identify effective pitchers others see as castaways. Jason Vargas, a soft-tossing lefty obtained through a three-team trade in 2008, became a 14-game winner with the Mariners. Hisashi Iwakuma, signed out of Japan in 2012, was a Cy Young finalist in 2013. Chris Young showed surprising durability as a fifth starter in 2014, and J.A. Happ hasn’t disappointed in a similar role this season.

And then there’s Montgomery, the minor-league journeyman who followed up on his no-walk, 10-strikeout shutout of the Royals by throwing a one-hit shutout against the Padres.

A reference point might be in order. Felix Hernandez, among the best pitchers in Mariners history and without doubt the most beloved, has thrown 11 shutouts since his 2005 debut: Approximately one a season.

Montgomery has thrown two shutouts in a week. Since he was asked to make a spot start in place of Paxton, he’s 3-2 with a 1.62 ERA. Beyond the numbers is the demeanor. It’s as if he believes the numbers should be 5-0 with a 0.00 ERA.

Some of those who analyze advanced stats suspect Montgomery has been fortunate to escape innings with runners stranded in scoring position. He’ll begin to give up home runs, the stats project, and, all in all, won’t be able to sustain the breakthrough work of his past two starts.

Well, duh. Montgomery’s past two starts have found him resembling the greatest pitcher who ever lived.

Baseball never stops surprising. A month ago, Mike Montgomery appeared destined to spend the rest of his career on a minor-league treadmill. Now he’s a rookie of the year candidate who has salvaged a season.

A one-hit wonder? I wouldn’t use that term in front of Montgomery. It implies his ticket to the big leagues is on standby — here today, gone tomorrow.

Besides, something tells me he’s still bristling about the one hit.

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