NORFOLK — Mark Montgomery’s rise from obscure Division I baseball recruit to major-league pitching prospect was, for a time, as meteoric as it was unexpected.
Montgomery pitched for Bruton High, but with a fastball that peaked at 86 mph as a senior, Longwood University recruited him as an infielder. The Lancers eventually moved him to pitcher, where the fastball improved into the low 90s while he developed a slider that is other-worldly.
The slider, which he used to strike out 14.2 batters per nine innings as a junior, prompted the New York Yankees to draft him in 2011 and fueled a quick rise through the organization. By the spring of 2013, blogs and articles predicting a promotion to the big-league Yanks were multiplying. Mike Rosenbaum of Bleacher Report’s MLB Prospects penned an article titled: “Is Mark Montgomery the Heir to Mariano Rivera’s Closer Throne?”
Then adversity struck. As he pitched for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre of the AAA International League, a sore shoulder landed him on the disabled list three times during the 2013 season.
So, while the buzz of an inevitable rise to the majors has subsided some, Montgomery, 23, is having the kind of spring as a reliever with the RailRiders that could revive such talk. Even after giving up a couple of home runs at Harbor Park last weekend against the Norfolk Tides, his 2014 numbers are stellar.
Montgomery, 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, has pitched 14 innings in 11 games, allowing just seven hits and three runs while striking out 16 and walking seven. His earned-run average is 1.93, and his WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) is an excellent 1.0.
While in Norfolk on Sunday, Montgomery talked to the Daily Press about his season.
Q: How special is it to be back in Norfolk to pitch?
A: It’s definitely exciting. It’s cool to be able to pitch in front of my family and see some familiar faces, and I’m happy to be here.
Q: Do you look at it as just a business trip or do you get to have some fun?
A: I spent some time with my family. That was the No. 1 thing. No. 2 is I came here to play baseball and try to get better.
Q: How far does it feel like you’ve come since playing at Bruton High to be as high up in baseball as you are now?
A: I don’t really look at it that way. Bruton was very good to me and helped me move on, and the same thing with Longwood. I don’t really look at it as where I’ve made it so far. I think I’m just working toward that ultimate goal.
Q: How much fun was it to pitch in some major-league exhibition games for the Yankees this spring?
A: That was a good experience, a good learning experience. I got to talk to some other guys and learn some things. It was definitely exciting and I look forward to doing it more often.
Q: Were you and Kyle Crockett (a Cleveland Indians pitching prospect from Bruton’s rival Poquoson High) ever on the same team together?
A: We played on a couple of summer teams together and I took a lot of pleasure in being able to play with him.
Q: How cool is it that both of you are so close to the major leagues right now?
A: It’s awesome. I spoke to him a couple of times and let him know I’m keeping track of him and I’m excited and pulling for him.
Q: How did the slider come about, and are you surprised that it became such a good pitch for you?
A: I went to Longwood to play shortstop and started to pitch a little more often. I had a curveball and kind of realized it wasn’t going to work.
I needed a swing-and-miss pitch and toyed around with some grips my freshman year and found one that stuck. Obviously, I didn’t see it playing out like this, but it’s exciting and I’m thankful to have it.
Q: The pre-2013 expectations for you were a lot larger than they are now. What’s it like to go from not even having the slider to that being the pitch they’ll want you to rely on if you go up to the bigs?
A: It’s exciting, but I don’t try to get too concerned with expectations. I just go out and pitch, perform to the best of my ability and kind of let the cards fall where they may.
I try not to get locked into any of those things and just go out and perform.
Q: What did you learn from the adversity of dealing with the shoulder problems and with the expectations not happening because of injuries?
A: It was definitely a tough one, but I learned a lot, learned that this game is not going to be easy and handed to you. It takes a lot of work, and I’m glad I went through some of the things I did, because I’d rather have some adversity down here (in AAA) than go up there (to the majors) and struggle.
Q: Your start to this season is very good and your overall numbers are good. Where do you feel you are at, and how do you feel you are pitching right now?
A: I’m getting back to where I was. The fastball is starting to feel a lot better, I’m able to throw strikes and get ahead in the zone and use that slider the way I want to, not really just have to rely on it like I did last year.
I’m getting back to where I was, getting comfortable.
Q: Some observers talk about wanting to see a couple of more miles per hour on the fastball, maybe a little more command and fewer walks. Is that a little more the result of the injuries last year?
A: Everything is coming back. The arm strength is coming back, I’m feeling better, the arm’s getting stronger. I think all of that is going to come back, and when it does, I think you’re going to see better location.
I’ve never been a pitcher that homed in on command. I’ve always been a guy who went and attacked hitters.
Q: A Yankees blogger the other day said he thinks you’ll make your major-league debut this year. Do you think much about that?
A: Absolutely not. I don’t think about that. I’m here right now, and I’ve got to pitch and perform here right now, and that’s the only thing on my mind. I can’t look at things like that.
Q: You pitched two out of the first three games here in Norfolk. How does the shoulder feel when you pitch in games so close together?
A: Everything feels great. Like I said, (the shoulder) is healthy, everything is back and I’m happy where I’m at.
Q: How big a relief is that?
A: I’m definitely happy that I’m healthy and it’s getting back to where it was, because that was a tough situation. But like I said, I’m kind of glad I went through some of those things because of what I learned.
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.