San Diego Padres

A pair of minor changes has Mike Montgomery excited about his future performance

A pair of minor changes has Mike Montgomery excited about his future performance

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.

Anthony Rizzo goes off on umpiring: 'That call is unacceptable'

Anthony Rizzo goes off on umpiring: 'That call is unacceptable'

Frustration boiled over for the Cubs and Anthony Rizzo on the final pitch of a hot, humid and disappointing four-game series against the San Diego Padres.

With the Cubs trailing 10-6 to one of the worst teams in the National League, Rizzo came to the plate with two outs and Jason Heyward on base.

Rizzo proceeded to work the count full before staring at a pitch he thought was well outside. Thinking it was far outside and clearly Ball 4, the Cubs first baseman started getting ready to throw his bat toward the dugout and take his base.

Instead, home plate umpire Angel Hernandez rang it up as Strike 3 and the end of the game:

Rizzo exploded on Hernandez, walking with the umpire up the first base line and passionately pleading his case, but it didn't matter. The game was over.

Rizzo had a good half hour to cool off before he met with the media and gave a measured - but bold - statement.

"I think it's well-documented that I talk to a lot of these umpires all the time and I have the utmost respect for every single one of them," Rizzo said. "I feel like I know them on a personal basis just because long games, long season, talk to them at first. Feel like I have a great working relationship with pretty much the whole league.

"That being said, that call is unacceptable. He told me to look at it, I looked at it and he was wrong. And I would like for him to confirm that. That can't happen. That can't happen in the major leagues at Wrigley Field or any field."

Rizzo felt like even the Padres would admit that was not a strike.

Both sides were unhappy with Hernandez's zone all game. Rizzo said Cubs catcher Willson Contreras came back into the dugout at several points during the contest shaking his head, wondering how some of these pitches were called strikes for Cubs pitchers. 

"Things like that can't happen and it happened all game," Rizzo said. "And nothing happens. And I have to answer questions to you guys - why can't you hit? Why are you striking out? Why can't you hit in the clutch in the ninth inning? All these questions. 

"Right there was literally Ball 4. It stinks that now this has to be news, because Angel is such a good guy. I mean, I apologized to the guy in the 2016 NLCS for showing him up. I don't like talking bad about umpires and I'm not talking bad - he just made a really, really unfortunate call."

The moment Rizzo was referring to in the 2016 NLCS with Hernandez was a heart-warming clip caught on TV:

Rizzo was fair, and pointed out how umpires have to deal with the heat all afternoon and have a tougher travel schedule than even the players do, working five or six weeks straight on the road.

He called Hernandez a "great guy" and said he hopes to hear from the umpire on the call, after both guys have had an opportunity to take a look at it now that the dust has settled.

The call obviously didn't decide the outcome of a 10-6 ballgame, but despite the low likelihood that they could come back, the Cubs would've preferred to have at least had the opportunity to try.

A Rizzo walk would've put them one more baserunner away from bringing the tying run to the plate on a day when the wind was blowing out 16+ mph at Wrigley Field. 

"You saw both sides," Joe Maddon said. "You gotta play it straight right to the very end and I'm not accusing anybody of not. It's egregiously a bad call. We can all see that. 

"I think that's why Anthony definitely wanted to say something, because he was trying to point out how bad the call was. And I know he talked to [crew chief Fieldin Culbreth] about it, also. We're fighting right there. The way the wind is blowing out, you get a couple more baserunners, anything can happen. You saw that they took advantage earlier. So yeah, it was a tough call to end the game on."

Rizzo agreed.

"This team's never out of it," he said. "We've shown that time and time again. So it makes it even more frustrating that a game can be called on that bad of a pitch."

The Cubs latest themed road trip centers around Pedro Strop

The Cubs latest themed road trip centers around Pedro Strop

It's Pedro's world, the Cubs are just living in it. 

One of the more underrated relievers in Cub history is getting the full star treatment today as the Cubs prepare for their road trip to Kansas City with Pedro Strop themed attire. For those who don't know what that means, take a look at what Strop was wearing after today's 10-6 loss to the Padres. Chains were a requirement for any outfit. 

And of course, Strop had to make sure he was looking his very best, rocking the tinted shades. He did tell our Tony Andracki he was going to wear something "loud." 

Baez and Strop pose together before heading out to Kansas City, take note of the shoes, Strop is always sporting the shiniest kicks. 

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Stroppy’s Road Trip. 🎩🔥🎩

A post shared by Javier Báez � (@javy23baez) on

And then the entire team got together for a group photo, which could have easily been mistaken for a bunch of dudes getting ready to hit up the hottest club.

Take a moment and appreciate the awkwardness that is Yu Darvish in this photo. 

Pedro Strop and the Cubs take on the Royals starting Monday at 7:15 pm CT, expect the Cubs to be in good spirits despite losing a home series to the Padres this weekend.