Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Mike Montgomery (38) throws during the seventh inning of Game 1 of the National League baseball championship series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. File photo.
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The advice was meant as motivation.

When Hart High graduate Mike Montgomery signed with the Kansas City Royals in 2008, his dad, Dave, told him to pitch every game like he was at Yankee Stadium, hurling fastballs and change-ups toward the Bronx Bombers.

It seemed though, despite a quick rise to Triple-A, like Montgomery might never step on a major league mound as he toiled in the minors for seven-plus seasons. Dominating one day. Struggling the next.

Then it happened.

The game on June 2 wasn’t at Yankee Stadium — it was nearly 3,000 miles west of the Bronx at Safeco Field in Seattle — and Montgomery was no longer the top prospect for Kansas City, the franchise that selected him 36th overall in 2008.

MORE baseball: Montgomery, Cubs reach World Series

But the 26-year-old who’d always had the ideal pitcher’s makeup — competitive, committed and confident with a 6-foot-4-inch, left-handed frame — was exactly where he never stopped believing he could be. And he keeps giving the Mariners reasons why he belongs.

“I always believed in myself as a pitcher,” Montgomery told The Signal.

Making a mark

Montgomery is making believers out of the Mariners now, too.

Since his call-up in June, Montgomery has posted a 3.25 ERA in 13 starts. He’s struck out 60 batters and walked 31 in 80 1/3 innings.

He posted back-to-back shutouts in late June — one of them a one-hitter — and became the 12th rookie to do so since 1980.

That from a player that struggled with control and consistency in seven-plus minor league seasons in Kansas City’s and Tampa Bay’s organizations.

“Really it comes down to I’m just executing pitches a lot more,” Montgomery says of his major league success. “There’s probably a lot more to it than that. Pitching is about executing pitches and reading swings and scouting reports.

“That’s what I’ve been learning through the last three years. I’m just doing a better job of it this year, and I have confidence in it. And I’m just trying to keep it going.”

Seattle traded for Montgomery in March, sending right-handed pitcher Erasmo Ramirez (career 4.35 ERA in the majors) to the Rays for a player that had once been the Royals’ No. 1 prospect and the No. 19 prospect in all of baseball, according to Baseball America — an arm seemingly destined for the Royals’ big league rotation after ascending to Triple-A in 2011.

“He committed from day one … that was going to be his profession. He didn’t want to do anything else.”
-Dave Montgomery

But Montgomery struggled so much at Triple-A Omaha (5.32 ERA in 2011 and 5.69 ERA in 2012) that he was demoted to Double-A to finish out the latter season and traded to the Rays in December of that year in a deal that brought fellow Hart grad James Shields to Kansas City.

It’d be more than two additional seasons in Triple-A and another trade before his debut.

“He was just learning to do it correctly,” Dave says. “He always had flashes of being really good. He just wasn’t consistent.”

He was, however, committed.

“He committed from day one … that was going to be his profession,” Dave says. “He didn’t want to do anything else.”

That devotion shone brightly on Christmas back in 2008, Montgomery’s senior year at Hart.

His family returned home at roughly 11:30 p.m. from celebrating the holiday with relatives on his grandfather’s and uncle’s dairy farm in Shafter.

“Dad, we can’t go to sleep,” Montgomery told Dave, who teaches math at Hart and used to coach varsity basketball there. “You need to take me to Hart to open the weight room to do my workout.”

Dave says now, “I thought, if you have that kind of work ethic, you’re going to be successful no matter what career you choose.”

But like he said, there was only one choice.

That competitive flair

A decision between playing with Montgomery or against him — in anything — is really a no-brainer, says Casey McCarthy, a longtime friend of Montgomery’s and a baseball teammate of his at Hart.

“He’s the guy you want on your team whatever you’re doing,” says McCarthy, now a Double-A pitcher in Miami’s organization. “If you’re playing basketball in the pool or playing videogames, he’s one of those guys that will do whatever he needs to do to win.”

In basketball, Montgomery was an All-Santa Clarita Valley and All-Foothill first-teamer as a junior at Hart and averaged 20 points a game in 14 contests as a senior.

But he was dismissed from the team three days after receiving a technical foul and committing an intentional foul in a loss to Valencia.

Hart head coach Tom Kelly didn’t elaborate on the dismissal at the time.

“He used to get technical (fouls) and stuff like that. It was kind of funny to watch,” McCarthy says.

In baseball, Montgomery is more controlled (he says a pitcher is better off exerting 80-percent effort than 120 percent, emphasizing the need to stay calm and breathe), but he’s no less competitive.

He always competed with Hart grad and now-Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer at practice, he says.

It was a matter of proving who could throw farther. Who could throw harder. Who could be more accurate.

It translated to games, too.

“One would go out there and throw a shutout and strike out eight and the next one would want to go out there and strike out nine,” McCarthy says.

Bauer, then a junior, went 12-0 with a 0.79 ERA in 2008, before graduating early and heading to UCLA.

Montgomery went 8-2 that year with a 1.41 ERA and what then-Hart catcher Bryan Lucas calls a “big league fastball” that reached into the 90s.

At Hart, Montgomery says, he began to believe he could be successful at the next level.

“Not only that,” he says, “but at the highest level.”

The 25-30 scouts that showed up every time he pitched felt the same way. But it never took precedent over team success, says Hart head baseball coach Jim Ozella.

“With all the attention Mike had that whole year, you would think that would take precedent over the team. It really didn’t,” Ozella says. “Mike was really determined for us to have a successful year. That’s really a credit to him.”

However, despite Montgomery’s complete-game effort (three earned runs, seven strikeouts, three walks, five hits), Hart lost 4-2 to Wilson High and pitcher Aaron Hicks, now a Minnesota Twin, in the 2008 CIF-Southern Section Division I quarterfinals.

It was a loss — but also a taste of what Montgomery now loves most about the majors.

“I think it’s really just competing against the best in the world and coming up (to Seattle) and getting to go out there every five days,” he says.

A breakthrough

On March 31, things began to line up for Montgomery’s debut.

After moving him to the bullpen in spring training, Tampa Bay flipped him to Seattle.

Then in late May, Seattle, which had already lost a starting pitcher to the disabled list, saw starter James Paxton follow suit.

It was finally Montgomery’s time.

His debut came on June 2, a 63-degree Tuesday. The retractable roof was closed at Safeco Field.

“I wanted him to be up to the moment. And I was proud that he was that — he was that night,” Dave says.

Montgomery pitched six innings of one-run baseball in front of more than 27,000 fans. He struck out four, walked two and allowed just four hits in a 5-3 Mariners’ loss. He didn’t factor in the decision.

The Root Sports’ TV broadcast summed up Montgomery’s night best after the rookie struck out eight-time All-Star Carlos Beltran with a diving breaking ball to end the sixth.

“Mike Montgomery, a big tip of the cap to the young man as he goes six strong innings, and the Mariners really needed it. Huge ovation here at Safeco Field,” the announcer bellowed.

That against the team his dad told him to pretend he was facing — the Yankees.

“We laugh when we talk about that,” Dave says.

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Mason Nesbitt
Mason Nesbitt is The Santa Clarita Valley Signal's Sports Editor.
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