Mike Montgomery settling into bullpen role just in time for Cubs

CHICAGO -- When you think about it, there was a micro-second there when it appeared that the Chicago Cubs' marquee trade deadline acquisition was going to be Mike Montgomery.

Montgomery was plucked from the Seattle Mariners on July 20, along with minor league starter Jordan Pries, in exchange for two Cubs prospects: pitcher Paul Blackburn and first baseman Dan Vogelbach. Vogelbach had been lingering on the organization’s prospect lists for a few years but was blocked at the big league level by Anthony Rizzo. Nevertheless, his name had just enough cachet to suggest that the Cubs must think pretty highly of Montgomery.

“You can’t just build the bullpen or your rotation one offseason at a time. You have to look down the line,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at the time. “If we hit on this deal, and Montgomery becomes someone who can help us now as we head down the stretch and help us later, then we’ll be very happy about this transaction.”

When Montgomery was acquired, the Cubs badly needed another quality lefty in the bullpen, and though the Aroldis Chapman speculation was already building a buzz, that transaction was still a week from happening. Montgomery, once an elite prospect, had a chance to make his mark before Chapman ever arrived.

Things didn’t start out so great. The first batter Montgomery saw as a Cub was the Brewers’ Kirk Nieuwenhuis in a game July 23 at Milwaukee. Nieuwenhuis not only entered that game hitting .195 but also entered the plate appearance with a grand total of one home run off lefties in his five-year big league career.

What did Nieuwenhuis do? He homered, of course, by poking a Montgomery offering down the left-field line and just inside the foul pole.

“Montgomery, that’s just unfortunate,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after the game, “for your first moment right there. I hope he just files that [away] very quickly because it looked like his stuff was outstanding.”

That was pretty much Maddon’s refrain when it came to Montgomery, who went on to allow a run in each of his first three Cubs outings. Against his old team on July 29, he allowed five of the 11 Mariners he faced to reach by a hit or a walk. He bounced back in his next appearance but then didn’t appear in a game between Aug. 1 and Aug. 10.

Maddon chalked it up to a numbers game and bemoaned his inability to get Montgomery game action. Sure enough, things have been looking up lately for Montgomery, who seems noticeably more at home both on the mound and in the Cubs' clubhouse.

“I feel more comfortable,” Montgomery said. “I’ve been here for a couple of weeks now.”

The results show it. After throwing two scoreless innings in the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader, a 4-0 Cubs win, Montgomery has put up four straight scoreless outings. Maybe the best part of his appearance Tuesday came in the seventh inning, when he fanned Nieuwenhuis on three pitches. Although Montgomery was removed in the eighth, Maddon said he considered trying to stretch Montgomery out over the final four innings.

“If he had gone through that whole inning, he would have gone back out there [for the ninth],” Maddon said. “If it was 3-0, Aroldis was going out there. If it was 4-0, [Montgomery] was going back out.”

Montgomery’s acclimation couldn’t be better timed for the Cubs, who are trying to work around the knee injury suffered by setup guy Pedro Strop and some shoulder soreness that might or might not push starter John Lackey back a few days.

“I think any time you go out there and get the job done, opportunities are going to come up even more,” Montgomery said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. Just go out there and put up zeros.”

Montgomery, a starter in the minors who finished his Seattle stint in the rotation, gives Maddon all sorts of options as he shuffles bullpen roles. No longer does it appear that Montgomery’s short-term gig will be as a lefty-killing specialist.

“I made a couple of starts in Seattle, and starting is kind of what I’ve done my whole career,” Montgomery said. “This year I’ve had the transition to the bullpen. I’m learning how to physically prepare my body. I feel ready, whatever situation this team needs.”

But getting lefties out remains Montgomery’s bread and butter. Lefties are hitting just .202 against him this season. Since he’s been with the Cubs, Montgomery has allowed a .316 batting average and a .824 OPS against lefties. After his slow start in Chicago, lefties have hit just .167 against him since July 31.

“I felt that [pressure] right away,” Montgomery said. “I think now I know that pressure is going to be there, and I’ve felt that pressure. I feel good about things right now, going out there with big smiles and performing.”