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The Rime of the Unsung Mariner

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In Which I Once Again Praise Michael Paul Montgomery

this salty sea dog doesn't mind the rain
this salty sea dog doesn't mind the rain
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

I have made the case before in this space to put Mike Montgomery into high-leverage situations. Tuesday night Scott Servais did just that, lifting Nick Vincent to put the lefty in against Coco Crisp in the sixth inning with the bases loaded and two outs with Oakland clinging to a one-run lead. I would like to tell you that MiMo shut it down, proving himself the reliable, lockdown reliever I believe him to be. That did not happen.

So this is not a great pitch. 94 mph, middle-middle, Mike challenged Coco with the fastball and Coco crushed it into left field. This marked Crisp's first hit against Monty in three tries, and it was a doozy. MiMo came back and got Billy Butler to pop out first pitch-swinging to end the inning, but the damage was done. At trivia, I dropped my face into my hands and despaired over the retraction I might have to write.

WPA (Win Probability Added) will tell you Montgomery did not contribute in a positive way on Tuesday. The double he allowed to the ever-annoying Crisp pushed the score to 5-2, Oakland, and dumped the Mariners’ chances of winning the game down to about 11%. WPA awards MiMo a score of -.102 for Tuesday night. WPA is a stupid jerkface.

In the bottom of the sixth, Seager, Lind, and Iannetta would take a total of seven pitches to make three outs, and Montgomery was right back out there, facing the closest thing the A’s have to a murderer’s row (a toe-stubbing row?) in Stephen Vogt/Danny Valencia/Khris Davis. After retiring Vogt and Valencia in eight pitches, Montgomery allowed a double to Davis that was almost identical to Crisp’s and I ground my teeth. For a relief pitcher, the season is new enough that Monty's numbers haven't quite stabilized. Every pitch is another clue towards what, exactly, the Mariners got in the Erasmo Ramirez trade, because despite being around for a whole year Montgomery's changing role means we still don't know exactly what we have in him, like a tall, blond version of a Kinder Sorpresa egg. But MiMo only needed two pitches to induce a groundout from Yonder Alonso and end the inning. Monty doesn’t generate a ton of strikeouts, but his ground ball rate is 62% and he is yet to give up a home run in his 27 innings of work. Currently he is stranding runners on base at a rate of almost 81%, which seems impossibly high, but is only about 10% higher than his 2015 numbers. Even when he gives up a hit, Montgomery has been excellent at making sure it won’t matter. When the game is "Late and Close," per BB-Ref, Monty allows a batting average of .048, with a SO/W ratio of 7.0. Granted, that's over a tiny sample size of five games, but for all the scenarios listed under "Clutch Stats," Montgomery barely allows batters to crack .200 against him.

After another 1-2-3 inning in the bottom of the seventh (Shawn O’Malley may have struck out, but he saw more pitches that inning than Aoki and Martin combined), I was surprised to see Montgomery again take the field. Montgomery as long reliever makes sense, given his track record as a starter, but using him in such a way decreases his availability for subsequent days and the element of surprise he brings. But this was a calculated risk by Servais; Oakland batters are hitting just .095 against Monty, and the bottom of the order hadn’t yet seen him. The gamble paid off, as MiMo struck out the side. Instead of relying on his fastball alone, Montgomery used his curveball and change to keep batters guessing. He only threw the change for four out of his 41 pitches, but it resulted in three swings-and-misses, including this putaway of Marcus Semien:

Imagine my surprise when Montgomery’s lanky frame emerged from the dugout again to pitch the top of the ninth (I wasn’t at the game, I was playing trivia, so yes I was surprised, okay smarty?). After retiring Crisp and Burns on five total pitches, Monty fell behind Stephen Vogt 3-0 and I abandoned my team to the geography round to engage in some good old-fashioned hand-wringing. I needn’t have worried; MiMo came back to strike out Vogt (who is still hitless against Monty) on three pitches. The win expectancy crawled from 17.5 to 18%. After allowing that first hit to Crisp, Montgomery gave up just one other hit and no runs (despite giving up the double, the runners were inherited, so Monty’s ERA remains at a shiny 1.67). He did not walk a batter. He struck out four, more than Nathan Karns in his five innings of work. Leonys Martin will get the lion’s share of glory for Tuesday night’s victory, which is meet and just. For his 3.1 innings of work, Montgomery's WAR will remain at a stubborn .4, his strikeouts left off the game highlights on MLB.com. But MiMo deserves credit—more than just the shy "W" appearing next to his name and jokes about "win vulturing" in fantasy. If Martin’s walkoff was the wind that lifted the sails of Mariners nation, it was MiMo at the rudder, keeping us on course for the victory.