It was all going wrong for Mike Montgomery. The 25-year-old had pitched well in his first four big league starts, but tonight's outing mattered just a little more, and the game sat on the brink of disaster early. The Kansas City Royals were in town, and the defending AL champion, all-star vote grabbing Royals had drafted Montgomery seven years earlier. He was their first round pick in 2008, a fireballing lefty who rocketed up top-prospect lists almost as soon as the ink dried on his first professional contract. He, along with Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and so many other talented farmhands, were supposed to lead the Royals back to post-season glory.
But Montgomery's career hit a snag before he reached Kansas City. He lost his feel. He started walking people. His earned run average soared. For the first time in his baseball life, he failed. And the Royals cut bait, pawning him off to the Rays as an afterthought in the decade's biggest blockbuster.
The expectation from some Royals staffers is Mike Montgomery is going to be quite geeked up tonight pitching against his former organization— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughStar) June 24, 2015
Two and a half years later Montgomery and the Royals met again, and Kansas City looked poised to strike first. Alcides Escobar singled to left to open the ballgame, and Moustakas put runners on the corners with a hard single. Montgomery then hit Lorenzo Cain, loading the bases seven pitches into the contest. The southpaw was surrounded by his ex-coworkers, on the verge of reminding friends and acquaintances why his former employer deemed him surplus to requirements.
But Montgomery flipped the narrative. He buckled down and persuaded Hosmer to chase a fastball out of the zone for the first out. Kendrys Morales stepped up next, and even though many believe him to be the finest designated hitter in the American League, the situation was not without hope. Safeco Field was a house of horrors last year for the hulking Morales, and all Montgomery needed was to coax a worm burner from the circuit's slowest ground ball hitter. Sure enough, Morales chopped a sinking fastball toward first, and all of the Mariners fans who grew so frustrated with the Cuban's play last season had the pleasure of watching him get doubled up on a grounder that nearly every other hitter in the league would have beaten out.
After working out of a first inning jam, the Royals threatened again in the second. Alex Gordon reached on a Logan Morrison error and Salvador Perez followed with a clean single to left field. Again, Montgomery sharpened with runners on base, turning to his changeup to fan Alex Rios and Omar Infante, and to put Escobar behind in the count 1-2. He then induced the Royals shortstop to whiff on a curve, striking out the side and ending Kansas City's final threat.
From there, Montgomery cruised. He retired seventeen consecutive Royals, and when Perez broke the streak in the eighth, it was on a Brad Miller error. The only other man to reach base was Morales, on a single with two outs in the ninth inning. Montgomery was simply spectacular: he beguiled grounders, induced strikeouts, baffled righties, and flummoxed lefties. Through it all, his changeup shined, dipping and fading an instant after prodding the impetuous Royals to swing. He even struck out a lefty, Gordon, on a dandy cambio.
All told, Montgomery struck out ten, the most strikeouts a starter has recorded against Kansas City all season. In this era of big strike zones, violent swings, and a dearth of hitters willing to shorten up with two strikes, it's easy to gloss over a few whiffs, or to chalk up a high strikeout night as a product of the environment. Not tonight. The Royals strike out less often than any team in baseball right now, and their SO% -- about 15% -- would be around average for a team in the late 1980's. Montgomery earned his strikeouts against a stingy offense that had no answers for him.
On the other side of the ball, it was the Dustin Ackley show. Ackley nearly got the Mariners on the board in the second, when he launched a 3-2 fastball from Jeremy Guthrie to the warning track. Alas, the ball hit just far enough in front of the wall to have room to bounce over for an automatic double. Kyle Seager, who would have scored on the play, had to hold at third. Mariners fans are conditioned for disappointment after an Ackley at-bat, so the sting hurt less than it might have in other circumstances, even after Brad Miller and Mike Zunino couldn't capitalize with runners in scoring position.
Ackley was also at the heart of the Mariners fourth inning rally. With runners on the corners, the former Tar Heel lifted a short fly to left, and the normally sure-handed Gordon fumbled it mid-slide. Ackley was again denied an RBI -- Seager had to wait to see if the ball was caught or dropped -- but the M's plated three in the inning. Miller walked with the bases loaded, Zunino ended an 0-for-2015 with a single to left, and the third run scored on a fielder's choice.
The following inning, Seth Smith singled Robinson Cano home and Ackley put the game out of reach with his fifth homer of the season, a high line drive with just enough carry to bounce off and over the yellow line in right center.
The dinger left Ackley a triple short of the cycle, and while Cain robbed him of extra bases in his final trip to the plate, he was all smiles after his first three hit game since April.
The game was a formality from there. Logan Morrison added a solo shot in the eighth, and the Royals went quietly over the game's final two hours, to the delight of the small but vocal crowd at Safeco. Only one fan in attendance didn't appreciate the spectacle unfolding before his eyes. That fan was Lookout Landing's very own Colin O'Keefe, and unfortunately for him, ROOT Sports's cameras caught him tweeting about how bored he was, unaware of the relentless mocking that would soon await him.
Former basketball coach Bill Bertka had an expression for whenever an unheralded player dominated a game: he called it paying the rent. Tonight, the Mariners had two such players to cover the bill. Montgomery, for all of his early success, is a 25-year-old rookie with an xFIP over 4. Ackley may or may not see out July in a Mariners uniform. But for one night, at least, they were awesome. Montgomery stuck it to his former team and Ackley got to play the star we all hoped he'd become. Tuesday's game was just a moment in time, a snapshot in the album of a long Mariners season. For two of the club's role players though, it was a day to remember, and a game we'll all recall fondly.