16th of Apr | Story

The story of a strikkkkkeout pitcher


TAMPA, Florida | The sliders dropped, the strikeouts piled up and nobody on the field or in the dugouts really registered what was happening because the game was still so darn close.

This was the first night of July last summer, the height of heat in South Carolina. Mark Montgomery, a young pitcher with a right arm worth your envy, was out on the mound for the bottom of the ninth inning. It was his second night with the Charleston Riverdogs. It was a save situation. No pressure.

Montgomery reared back, started to unfurl those sliders and accomplished what maybe a handful of professional pitchers ever have or ever will.

And then the leadoff batter tripled to right.

And the second batter singled to center.

And the lead shrank to a run.

And then Montgomery reared back, started to unfurl those sliders and accomplished what maybe a handful of professional pitchers ever have or ever will.

“I wasn’t counting,” says Montgomery, now the closer for the Tampa Yankees and one of the dominant relievers of the High-A Florida State League, three steps removed from the Bronx. “I was just trying to get the save. After the game, someone asked if I realized I struck out five straight.

“I didn’t even know.”




Montgomery is not particularly tall or heavy or physically intimidating when he stands at the center of an infield. He measures in at 5-foot-11 and weighs 205 pounds according the team roster, and those tend to exaggerate at least a little bit. He makes up for that with a fastball that touches 95 mph and a collection of sliders that can fool batters and catchers.

Yes, Montgomery has a collection of sliders — three, to be exact, though he would like to trim that number this season to two — and they all do something a little different. One has a tight spin, another has a short break. All of them move more than an Army brat.

“There’s not one that’s probably better than another, because they all do different things, and I think they’re all equally hard to hit,” says Tampa catcher J.R. Murphy, who has caught Montgomery during all of his appearances this season. “One kind of backs up and go in toward righties, one goes straight down almost like a splitter, and one kind of dives away from righties and into lefties. They’re all equally hard. Having his fastball plus the really hard slider makes him pretty hard to hit.”

At times, Montgomery can control his sliders better than he can his fastball, an oddity for pitchers, especially professionals. On that night nine months ago, he controlled them, just not well enough for his catcher, Gary Sanchez. Part of the problem was that Sanchez had never caught Montgomery, had never even watched him pitch before that game. He had no idea about Montgomery’s sliders or how they moved. He learned quickly.

“What is going on here?” Barreda remembers thinking. “How is Gary not catching these?”

After Montgomery allowed a leadoff triple and an RBI single that trimmed the RiverDogs’ lead over the Rome Braves to 10-9, he set down the next two batters, Chris Garcia and Evan Gattis, on called third strikes. Then he struck out Jakob Dalfonso. The game should have been over.

But Sanchez watched the ball skip past him, a wild pitch. Dalfonso sprinted to first base and the game continued.

“It was really hot out there,” says Manny Barreda, who pitched the sixth and seventh innings that night and is also now in the Tampa bullpen. “We were just trying to get out of there.”

Montgomery did his best to oblige by striking out the next batter, David Rohm, his fourth of the inning. Threw his second wild pitch, too. Rohm ran to first. The game continued.

“What is going on here?” Barreda remembers thinking. “How is Gary not catching these?”

Now the bases were loaded. The Braves could tie the game with a single, win it with a double, eviscerate Montgomery with a grand slam. (Four strikeouts and five runs allowed in less than an inning? Now that would have been a remarkable and ridiculous line.) Except Montgomery struck out Robby Heffinger.

And Sanchez held on to the ball.

There were no cameras set up in the stadium to capture the moment — five strikeouts in a single inning — just voices over a radio and a couple thousand fans in the seats, not all of them sure about what they had watched. Montgomery walked off the field, happy about the win first, the save second, still unaware of his quintet of Ks.

The mirage of the unknown disappeared the next day after The New York Times called. ESPN called, too. So did MiLB.com and the Charleston Post and Courier. Montgomery was a star for a while, the first South Atlantic League pitcher to strike out five in an inning in 14 years. He took it in stride as well as expected for a 20-year-old less than a month removed from the draft.

“Mark showed up the next day in the clubhouse and said, ‘I got a call from the New York Times,’” Barreda says. “We gave him a hard time because he was just throwing that out there. But it was cool to be a part of that, that he did that for us.” 




Montgomery struck out 51 batters last season in 28 1-3 innings between Staten Island and Charleston, exactly 60 percent of his outs. At Tampa this season, he already has 10 strikeouts over 6 1-3 innings in his first five appearances. More important, he hasn’t uncorked a wild pitch or forced a passed ball.

He still has a long way to develop. He started to throw a curveball during bullpen sessions a while back and used it during a game earlier this season. He needs to maintain his fastball as a solid option. He needs to reign in those sliders just a bit. If he can do that, if he can continue to strike out well more than a batter per inning, if he can develop even more of the closer’s mentality, he might just succeed his idol, Mariano Rivera, at some point.

Until then, he wants to win games and strike out batters. Just not five, or even four.

“I hope it doesn’t happen again,” Montgomery says of his record inning. “I hope my catcher and I will be on the same page and we’ll be familiar enough to just strike out three.”

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com  @MattLaWell  @AMinorLgSeason

Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.