Hours after Jon Lester threw a simulated game in an empty Wrigley Field, another lefty walked off the mound on Monday night to a standing ovation from the crowd of 38,453.
Nearing September in a season where the Cubs came dangerously close to considering a trade-deadline sale, focusing on player development and writing off 2017 as a learning experience for their young core, maybe the defending World Series champs can have it all.
Because Mike Montgomery – who emerged as one of the few bullpen options manager Joe Maddon trusted during last year’s playoff run and notched the final out in Game 7 – looked that good during a 6-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates as a short-term fix while Lester rests his tired left shoulder/tight lat muscle.
And the still-in-first-place Cubs are getting closer to full strength, with shortstop Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) starting his Triple-A Iowa rehab assignment and catcher Willson Contreras facing Lester in that simulated game (though a team official stressed it’s still only Day 19 on a projected four-to-six-week timeline for a strained right hamstring).
Montgomery handed the ball to Maddon in the eighth inning and quickly saluted the fans as he neared the dugout after giving up a leadoff homer to Jordy Mercer that landed in the left-field bleachers and snapped his personal scoreless streak at 17.1 innings. However the personnel moves shake out from here, the Cubs understand they can still do something special again.
“I’m on a good team and I want to win,” Montgomery said. “Especially after last year, you realize that winning is the No. 1 goal. That trumps everything else.
“Yeah, in the minor leagues, growing up, it probably wasn’t the same for me. I probably had a little bit more of an ego. You get drafted and your ego kicks in.
“But then once you get to the big leagues, you realize: ‘Look, it’s all about winning.’ You got to put that aside, check the ego at the door and just go out there and help the team win.”
Montgomery needed only five pitches to get through the first inning and forced 10 groundouts – check out the highlight of “backup” shortstop Javier Baez doing a full-extension dive and pop-up throw to steal a base hit from Jose Osuna – and didn’t walk any of the 25 batters he faced.
“I think his future is as a starter,” Maddon said. “I think what you saw tonight is typical of what he’s capable of doing over a long period of time.”
The Cubs have to be optimistic about their pitching infrastructure when Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are about to become free agents and the costs of their young hitters will soar through the arbitration system. But Montgomery – who has gone 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA in three spot starts since late July – is quietly making the case to be part of the 2018 rotation.
“He’s handled himself great,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “In some ways, I think the bullpen move probably saved some bullets for him, which is probably helping right now. But he’s looked good. He’s a hard guy to square up. The ball is on the ground a lot. He’s got a lot of weapons. He handles lefties and righties well.
“It’s been a positive year for him, and certainly we’ll consider all those factors (for) the rotation next year. But his versatility is really valuable and we talk about it all the time: It’s not going to be five starters.
“We have to think through it that way. And the best teams have six, seven, eight guys that can do it. And he’s definitely going to be one of those guys.”
Now 10 games over .500 – and up 2.5 games on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central – an organization that is built upon depth and naturally cautious with injuries shouldn’t feel rushed with Lester.
“I’m going to assume that I’m going to be asked to start again,” Montgomery said. “That’s going to be my routine. If it changes, it changes, and I’ll be able to adjust from there. But, yeah, I let ‘em know: ‘Hey, I’ll do any role.’”