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Mike Montgomery explains the unique pitching culture around Cubs

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery explains the unique pitching culture around Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Mike Montgomery doesn't need a detailed job description of the hybrid role the Cubs envision or a clear idea of when the rotation might need a sixth starter. Just be ready for anything, a lesson reinforced during the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7.

"I like that better," Montgomery said Monday at the Sloan Park complex. "Don't necessarily tell me, because then I don't have time to think about it. Just throw me in there and I'm ready to go."

While Joe Maddon essentially confirmed that Brett Anderson will be the fifth starter – if healthy – the Cubs manager already trusted Montgomery enough to get the final out that ended the franchise's 108-year drought.

Anderson's projected rotation spot is mostly a reflection of his health issues and Montgomery's versatility. The change-of-scenery thing Cubs officials talk up doesn't work on anyone everywhere. Jake Arrieta is the lottery ticket that turned into a Cy Young Award winner. 

But Montgomery is seen as a pet project for Theo Epstein's front office and the pitching infrastructure built by coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode. 

"There's just a culture," Montgomery said, "especially with some of the veteran guys, that creates this pitching-friendly environment where you can learn and you can adapt. You can watch guys that are really good at what they do. 

"You combine that with the information and the scouting reports and talking to the video guys and working with the pitching coach. Obviously, with your mechanics, getting them squared away is important. But I think understanding who you're facing, what they like to hit (is also important). 

"The whole chess match part of the game – it's helped me a lot. It was being out there without a plan and just kind of winging it – and now (it's) putting a plan together.

"That's what these guys do so well. They just have a really good game plan and they execute it better than just about anybody in the game." 

Developing pitching talent at the major-league level is particularly important when the farm system hasn't felt a trickle-down effect yet and the scouting department has prioritized hitters at the top of the draft. 

Not that Montgomery is taking it for granted, but this is the first time he has reported to camp with his spot on the Opening Day roster already penciled into the team's plans. 

Not being on the bubble gives Montgomery the luxury to work on things, focus more on his craft and study how Jon Lester uses certain bullpen sessions to hone his fastball, down and in, down and away, up and in, over and over again.

"I love watching Jonny pitch," Montgomery said. "Being a lefty, too, it's just how consistent he is and how he can execute his fastball when he needs to or make a big pitch. It's kind of looking at them and saying: ‘OK, how can I get to that level?'

"It's cool to be in an environment like that. It really just breeds success for other guys that maybe mechanically aren't there yet, but they have the stuff. Once I get the mechanics down, then you take it to the next level of game-planning."

That's where Kyle Hendricks applied his Ivy League education, using sequencing, pinpoint control and sharp movement to overpower hitters and lead the majors with a 2.13 ERA last season.

"He's got a great memory," Montgomery said. "He can go out there and it's like he's got those reports on the hitters stuck in his head. For me, I've used it as more of a rough guideline if I need to fall back on something or I don't know where to turn in a certain situation.

"It just kind of gives you that safety blanket. You get in a tight spot, you take your chances on what you think is the best pitch. Having that information to begin with is huge."

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Epstein compared Montgomery's career arc to Andrew Miller's when the Cubs made the Dan Vogelbach trade with the Seattle Mariners. Montgomery checked so many boxes, from age (27) to size (6-foot-5) to first-round pedigree (36th overall in 2008) and controllability (through 2021). 

After bouncing around the minors for the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Rays – and the biggest moment of his life – Montgomery will still be a Cubs Way test case.

"We think we're getting him at the right time," Epstein said last summer. "He's certainly not a household name. But we think he's got a chance to take off and maybe be the type of guy that a year from now you couldn't get in a deal of this size. 

"If you wait until they're fully established, sometimes the price tag is so high that they're virtually impossible to acquire. But if your scouts do a good job of identifying the guys who are trending in the right direction – and you're willing to take a shot – sometimes there's a big payoff at the end."

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Why Cubs-Cards COVID-19 postponement raises heat on MLB, ethics questions

Millions of Americans have lost jobs or taken pay cuts because of the economic impact of a coronavirus pandemic that in this country shows no signs of going away anytime soon, including countless members of the sports media.

So despite some of the more laughably ignorant opinions from the dimmer corners of social media, exactly nobody in the media wants any sport to shut down again.

That said, what the hell are we doing playing games outside of a bubble during the deadliest pandemic in this country in more than 100 years?

With Friday's news that another Cardinals staff member and two more players tested positive in the past two days for COVID-19, the Cubs-Cards weekend series was postponed as officials scrambled to test and retest Cardinals personnel and try to get their season restarted.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since the intake process began in June, have done everything right, from management to the last player on the roster, to keep their team healthy and playing.

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But the operative, most overlooked, word in all of this has always been “playing.”

And the longer MLB pushes through outbreaks, and measures the season’s viability in counting cases instead of the risk of a catastrophic outcome for even one player, the deeper its ethical dilemma in this viral cesspool.

“Ethically, I have no problem saying we’re going to keep doing this,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said over the weekend about asking players to continue working as the league experienced outbreaks involving the Marlins and Cardinals.

“That said, we have to do it the right way,” Hoyer said, citing the extra lengths the Cubs have taken to keep players and staff safe.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

But even he and other team executives understand the limits of all the best-made plans.

“The infection is throughout the country. That’s the reality,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If you’re traveling around, there’s a real risk. Protocols are not perfect. No set of protocols are perfect. They’re designed to minimize the risk as best you possibly can.”

And while the odds for surviving the virus favor young, athletic people such as baseball players, the nearly 160,000 Americans killed by COVID-19 in the last five months include otherwise healthy toddlers, teens and young adults.

Add that to the best-known characteristic of this virus — its wildfire-like ability to spread within a group — and baseball’s attempt to stage a two-month season involving travel in and out of 30 locales starts to look like Russian roulette.

Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez, 27, contracted COVID-19 last month and as a result developed myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart — that might shut him down for the season even after multiple tests say he’s clear of the virus.

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, a fit, 39-year-old, recent major-league athlete, had a monthlong case so severe he went to the emergency room at one point for treatment before the viral pneumonia and high fever began to improve.

The vast majority of players insist they want to play, including Rodríguez, even after his heart diagnosis. More than 20 others have opted out because of the risk, including All-Stars Buster Posey, David Price and — in the past week — Lorenzo Cain and Yoenis Céspedes.

Obviously the owners want to play, with more than $1 billion in recouped revenues at stake in a season of deep financial losses.

“Everyone that I know outside of baseball who’s become positive, who’s gotten COVID-19 at some point, did everything right — washed their hands, wore masks, socially distanced — and they still became positive,” Epstein said. “They don’t know where. It could have been the grocery store. It could have been walking down the street.

“And as far as I know that’s the case inside baseball, too,” he added. “This is everywhere in the country and unfortunately going the wrong direction nationwide. It’s a fraught environment out there that we’re operating in, and we’re going to need to do our absolute best and also be fortunate.”

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Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

Cubs-Cardinals series postponed after Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak worsens

The COVID-19 pandemic finally caught up to the Cubs, who had their weekend series against the Cardinals postponed Friday after the Cardinals' coronavirus outbreak worsened by three positive tests before the teams were scheduled to open a three-game series in St. Louis on Friday night.

The Cardinals, who haven't played since last week because of an outbreak that now includes at least 16 players and staff, scrambled to test and retest personnel Friday as Major League Baseball wiped another series off their schedule.

Cardinals president John Mozeliak said Friday the latest players to test positive are outfielder Austin Dean and pitcher Ryan Helsley. The club announced Tuesday catcher Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong recently tested positive.

The Cubs, who have not had a player test positive since intake testing began more than a month ago, had not lost a game on their schedule because of coronavirus issues.

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The Cubs (10-3) were scheduled to fly home from St. Louis Friday night and are not scheduled to play again until Tuesday in Cleveland. This weekend's series has not been rescheduled yet.

“Based on the information MLB has shared with us, postponing this series is a necessary step to protect the health and safety of the Cardinals and the Cubs,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said in a statement. “Therefore, it is absolutely the right thing to do.

“While it’s obviously less than ideal, this is 2020, and we will embrace whatever steps are necessary to promote player and staff wellbeing and increase our chances of completing this season in safe fashion,” he added. “We will be ready to go on Tuesday in Cleveland. In the meantime, we wish the Cardinals personnel involved a quick and complete recovery.”

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