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One of the most common occurrences following a Cubs game this year is a starting pitcher saying he felt good and took a step in the right direction, even if the results weren't great.

On the one hand, what else are they supposed to say?

On the other hand, it makes sense, given the Cubs starting rotation has vastly underperformed in 2018.

Mike Montgomery is no different. 

After giving up 7 hits and one run in 5.1 innings Thursday against the Padres, the lanky lefty sat in front of the Chicago media and said he felt like he took a step forward and threw the ball better than his stat line showed.

It doesn't matter that he only struck out 2 hitters or generated 1 swing and miss while facing one of the game's worst lineups. Nor does it matter that he's allowed 19 hits over the last 10.1 innings he's thrown.

Why?

Because Montgomery wasn't just up there talking about luck or blowing smoke. He's made specific changes to his pitch arsenal that he truly believes will lead to better results.

"I changed the grip on my curveball," he said Thursday night. "It played a lot better, so I'm gonna kinda work on that and continue to better that. Also, my cutter/slider was a lot better.

"...I'm gonna still look to get more swings and misses. I'm a groundball pitcher, but I think in today's game, you're gonna need swings and misses, so I'm constantly gauging how I can do that. I think some of the things I did tonight are gonna give me more of those and I was pretty happy about that."

 

Montgomery said the main focus on his new curveball grip is to get it back to being a weapon the way it was in 2016.

All Cubs fans can attest to how good his curveball was late that season, as the big looping breaking ball he threw to Cleveland's Michael Martinez clinched the first World Series in 108 years for the franchise.

The 29-year-old hasn't liked how his curveball has been for a while, in part because he changed his arm slot slightly before the season.

"It was like, 'OK, I gotta find a way to get my curveball to break more like a couple years ago," Montgomery said. "In '16, it was my go-to weapon and it played really the entire season and obviously in the playoffs. 

"With some changes in my mechanics, some other things I've done have gotten better. I think [the curveball has] regressed, so to speak, but it's just changed and I didn't think it played as well. 

"I recognized what it was doing. It wasn't breaking and generating what I wanted it to be. I'm slowly trying to make a change. ... It got better [Thursday]. When it gets better, you have the confidence to throw it in different counts. And for the way I pitch, having a good curveball makes a big difference."

In 2016, Montgomery's curveball was rated at 7.4 runs above average by FanGraphs. The pitch has been valued at -0.4 runs above average so far in 2018.

He admitted it's difficult to change the grip on a pitch in the middle of a season and incorporate it into a start right away, with only four days in between outings to work on it. 

But after throwing a couple curveballs he didn't like early in the game against the Padres, Montgomery figured he had nothing to lose, so he went to that new grip.

"I thought I threw some good ones, so I'm excited about that," he said. "Sometimes change takes a while. I thought [Thursday], I kinda found that confidence in throwing it like I know how just by changing the grip on it."

Montgomery has also tried to incorporate a slider/cutter into his arsenal, as well. He said that's strictly just to try to generate more swings and misses and as a result — strikeouts. 

He's a extreme groundball pitcher, keeping opposing hitters in the dirt 53.5 percent of the time. That's not a bad strategy with the Cubs' elite infield defense.

But his strikeouts are at a career low (14.2 percent) at a time when whiffs are way up across the entire league.

A lack of swing-and-miss stuff leaves a lot more to chance for a guy like Montgomery. Even if he executes his pitch well, all that contact eventually can fall in on bloop hits or groundballs through the hole.

Hence why he's refining the slider/cutter.

"To get more swings and misses and to generate weaker contact at the same time," Montgomery said. "It's no secret — I'm not punching out 9 guys per 9 out there. I'm not worried about strikeouts, but I think you're always trying to find a way to get better.

 

"For me, being able to get more swings and misses will make me better. Especially if I can not dwell on that, but understand — OK, what are people doing in the game to get swings and misses? Right now, I feel like a good slider is the king at getting swings and misses.

"Guys aren't swinging and missing at a lot of fastballs, except up in the zone maybe. It's just utilizing it with my other pitches. I've never really thrown a true slider — it's been a variation of a cutter and it still is. 

"I think it was better [Thursday], but it wasn't where I want it to be. It's gonna be a process and just kinda slowly work on it and get better."

Montgomery has been solid in the Cubs rotation this season — 3-3 with a 3.36 ERA and 1.31 WHIP across 12 starts.

But he's still working toward trying to take that next step, even if the Cubs are concerned that he's approaching a career-high in innings and may move him to the bullpen down the stretch.

For now, however, Montgomery is fully entrenched in the rotation and takes the ball Tuesday evening in Kansas City. Catch all the action on NBC Sports Chicago, with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m.