Imagine yourself as Jordan Montgomery: Pitching a brilliant game, getting better as each inning passes, handcuffing the defending American League champs in their ballpark, silencing a sellout crowd at Progressive Field.
And then Joe Girardi taps you on the shoulder in the dugout and tells you it’s over. After five innings and 65 pitches.
The curveball was working, The changeup. All of it. The Indians were chasing pitches nowhere near the zone, whiffing on balls that bounced a foot off the plate. Seven strikeouts in those five innings. Zero walks.
“I had a lot going today,” Montgomery said afterward.
Apparently, not enough to kick his manager’s addiction to the bullpen phone.
Girardi was unapologetic about replacing Montgomery with David Robertson to start the sixth. After Robertson pitched two innings, Dellin Betances worked the eighth and Aroldis Chapman closed a 2-1 victory that ended the Yankees’ losing streak at four games.
“It was a tough call to pull him,” Girardi said. “But this is how we’re built.”
That statement is his default position whenever this question comes up, which is going to be more often in the weeks ahead. Brian Cashman constructed a super-pen last month by trading for Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, but he also made it considerably less fun to be a member of the rotation.
Montgomery knew what kind of questions would be coming after the quick hook, and as much as he tried to tiptoe around it, he couldn’t completely disguise his feelings. “It was a little disappointing when he pulled me,” he said. “But the plan worked.”
What can a 24-year-old rookie really say? Girardi has done the same with CC Sabathia and wouldn’t hesitate to do it to the others should the occasion arise, so it’s not as if the manager is picking on the kid.
And if Montgomery is frustrated by that treatment, he won’t be for much longer. The Yankees probably will send him to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre when they return to a five-man rotation this week.
There’s a logical argument for staying with six, as Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka could use the extra rest. But Girardi sounds determined to dump a starter, and it’s hard to see anyone but Montgomery going after Cashman’s recent trades for Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia, established veterans with playoff experience. “We haven’t made any decisions,” Girardi said. “We talk about things as an organization and it’s five minutes after the game.”
Montgomery doesn’t deserve what’s coming, but baseball isn’t necessarily fair in these situations. He didn’t factor in the decision Saturday night, but his only mistake was an 81-mph hanging curveball to Carlos Santana, who smoked a drive off the railing above the leftfield wall to tie the score at 1 in the second. After Giovanny Urshela’s leadoff single in the third, Montgomery retired nine straight, striking out five in that stretch. Then he was gone. “I see where they’re going with it,” he said. “Whatever it takes to win . . . I’m just trying to be a team guy.”
The Yankees have their hands full with the resurgent Red Sox, who seem to have shrugged off their dysfunctional ways for a week, but who’s to say Montgomery can’t be part of this seven-week sprint to the finish? He leads all AL rookies in wins (seven), strikeouts (111) and innings (115 2⁄3) and is fourth with a 4.05 ERA. Montgomery also has allowed three or fewer runs in 16 of his 21 career starts.
Cashman felt he had to fortify his rotation for the stretch run, and the trade for Garcia was mostly done as insurance if his negotiations for Gray fell through. When the Yankees got Gray anyway, the short-term solution was to go to the six-man rotation, but that wraps up with Luis Severino’s start in Sunday’s series finale against the Indians.
So Montgomery left the stadium Saturday night with the mixed emotions of a potentially great start ended far too soon and his future in limbo. There are worse things. Such as being in Scranton, a familiar feeling he may experience again very shortly.