TORONTO — Yankees pitcher Jordan Montgomery remembers being very worried during his last big-league outing.
Jordan Montgomerys return is a win for him and the Yankees
Although working a 1-2-3 first inning in Houston on May 1, 2018, the 6-foot-6 left-hander was experiencing some elbow tightness. He also noticed the scoreboard showing his fastball velocity was down from the usual low 90s to the high 80s.
I always think the worst, Montgomery, a valuable No. 5 starter as a rookie in 2017 and again the following April, said Saturday before the Yankees 13-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.
His hunch eventually was right. Although a first MRI revealed only an elbow strain that would lead to about 6-to-8 weeks on the injured list, a return to throwing following a three-week shutdown created more discomfort, then another MRI showed a tear.
And so, Montgomery had that dreaded surgery that no pitcher wants to go through on June 7 of last year, and as expected, there were highs and lows during a long rehab that seemed longer.
Fifteen months and a week later, Montgomery is returning Sunday as the Yankees starter for their series finale at Rogers Centre against the Jays.
Really excited, Montgomery said. Feels like I was five years old when it happened. Happened a long time ago. A lot of hard work got me back.
Whatever results that Montgomery gets in this start and any of his September chances to pitch wont change his status heading into next season. Hell probably head into spring training competing for a big-league job.
Depending on what the Yankees do in the winter, Montgomery could be positioned for a 2020 rotation spot or be viewed as a depth guy who could stick with the big league in a long reliever role similar to what Luis Cessa has been in this season.
Even with left-hander CC Sabathia retiring after the 2019 season, the Yanks currently have five projected starters for next season. Theres Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and Domingo German, and theres a good chance that the Yankees will be making a big run in the winter at signing Houston Astros co-ace Gerrit Cole, who will be a free agent.
With or without Cole in the Yankees fold, Montgomery may need another starter to get hurt next spring to get back in the rotation even though his career numbers over 35 starts are impressive: 11-7 record, 3.84 ERA.
Im not looking at any spot opening or anything, Montgomery said. As far as CC retiring and opening up a spot, Im going to miss CC. If I could convince him to come back another year, I would. This is his 19th season. He might as well end on an even number.
Montgomery, 26, proved a lot of doubters wrong during his rookie season in 2017 when he wasnt on anyones radar as a threat to make the big-league roster until midway through spring training. Relying on good control and a big curve, he went on to pitch to a 9-7 record and 3.88 ERA over 29 starts. Last season, Montgomery did a good job again before his season ended abruptly, as he was 2-0 with a 3.62 ERA over six starts.
Asked what makes Montgomery tough on hitters, Yankees manager Aaron Boone said, Really good secondary pitches, a breaking ball for (hitters on) both sides of the plate to handle. Hes obviously a tall guy thats over the top, so its a little bit of a different angle. If hes throwing strikes with his pitches, hes a tough guy to hit. Its a different kind of look for people to hit and his breaking ball is real.
Montgomery probably will top out at about 60 pitches on Sunday, and after that his role for the rest of the season is undefined because the Yanks already had five healthy starters without him and Severino will be making his season debut on Tuesday after being on the injured list all season. Hell probably only see sparse action in relief or as an opener once or twice, thus its likely too late to make a push for consideration to be on the postseason roster.
With Jordan, the biggest thing is the big-picture thing, Boone said. Coming back from a major injury, hopefully he can get in some outings down here to where its kind of a momentum builder going into the offseason. But I wouldnt rule out if he comes out and pitches really well and efficiently that he can push himself into that (postseason roster) conversation.
Regardless, Montgomery has been through too much over the last 15 months to be worried about anything beyond his Sunday return to the majors and finishing the season healthy while logging a few innings.
I dont think the guys around here have forgot about me, Montgomery said. Im not worried about it. Ive been really focused on getting healthy and just getting back out there and showing everyone what I can do.”
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His return comes at a good time. This week, the Bombers will receive an enormous influx of pitching, with Luis Severino and Dellin Betances joining Montgomery. Since two weeks remain in September, all three hurlers will have a chance to show what they have down the stretch.
It feels like ages ago, but Montgomery had started that 2018 season on a solid note, with a 2-0 record and a 3.62 ERA in six starts. He was just as strong in 2017, running a 3.88 ERA in 29 starts as a rookie. The potential is clearly there, but now we get to see what Montgomery is capable of in the lead-up to the playoffs. The 26-year-old missed out on the postseason in both 2017 and 2018, so expect him to bring some fire when he takes the field on Sunday. Manager Aaron Boone indicated he could have the chance to pitch his way to the postseason roster, stating I wouldnt rule out the fact if he comes out and pitches really well and efficiently he could push himself into that conversation.
In his rookie season, he already showed the durability to become a back-end of the rotation arm. He managed 155.1 innings, striking out 144 and walking 51. Reports have indicated that his fastball velocity is right around where it was before injury, as he seems to be sitting around 91 or 92 mph. That bodes well, as the stuff that allowed Montgomery to succeed in 2017 and 2018 should still be around now.
Though starter J.A Happ has looked good over his last few starts, hes still been a shell of what he was last season overall. He owns a 5.07 ERA on the year, and a strong return from Montgomery would give the Yankees more flexibility when it comes to some of their struggling veteran starters.
That said, its difficult to envision exactly what role Montgomery would play if he did find his way onto the playoff roster. The team already appears to have paired another lefty in CC Sabathia with Domingo German in an interesting tandem. Perhaps Montgomery could work multiple innings in a tight spot, or face a few left-handed hitters.
Regardless, that Montgomery has made it this far is a win, and that he sounds like he hasnt lost his stuff could be a boon. If he pitches his way into the playoffs, great, and if not, the Yankees have another interesting arm to take to camp in 2020. No matter what, we we can assume that after missing 16 months, Montgomery is going to come out determined to prove he belongs.