Forgive me Monty, for I have sinned.
The day before the end of the regular season, I morbidly discussed the Yankees’ winnowing potential starters in the heart of a playoff series with a friend of mine, even more fervently devoted to the Bronx club. We laughed away the seemingly inevitable tragedy of what we deemed a worst-case scenario: Jordan Montgomery starting an elimination game. In fact, I even said I’d quit writing for Pinstripe Alley if the aforementioned situation were to arise, being too distraught to continue going on following what I thought would look like a pathetic excuse of a baseball team. I’ll even flash the receipts to prove the depths of my own wrongheadedness:
Instead of quitting, I’ve decided to air my dirty laundry, and publicly beg for forgiveness. It’s hard to believe, even after the fact, but Jordan Montgomery allowed the fewest runs of any Yankee starter who pitched more than an inning this postseason in his first career playoff start—and that includes not one, but two Gerrit Cole starts.
In defense of my erroneous presumption, the last time Montgomery faced the Rays, he failed to make it through the first frame, allowing four runs on two hanging curveballs that left the park. However, his expected stats were that of a significantly better pitcher, finishing in the 95th percentile of opposing batters’ exit velocity, and he finished 2020 with an xERA nearly a run-and-a-half better than his actual 5.11 mark.
The left-handed Montgomery beat Rays hitters by working a solid changeup off of his primary sinker. In 2020, the Rays struggled against lefties’ sinkers, posting only a .282 wOBA against the pitch. Montgomery held the Rays to a single run off of three hits, three walks and four strikeouts. He kept the ball down, and away from the middle of the zone, opting to walk hitters if he was unable to paint, rather than gift the Rays any opportunities to do real damage.
When the Rays did put the ball in play, they weren’t able to elevate much of anything with force. Montgomery only allowed two batted balls to Rays hitters with greater than a twenty-degree launch angle. One of those was an infield pop up, whereas the other was Monty’s sole mistake, a sinker at the top of the zone that led to the Rays’ only extra base hit, Kevin Kiermaier’s second-inning double.
Of the seven homers Montgomery allowed in 2020, only one was off of a sinker, and it too was in the upper third of the strike zone. By leaning on the sinker, and keeping it down, Montgomery deftly handled the biggest game of his life against a Rays team ill-equipped to deal with his exact strengths. Hopefully, today’s promising performance is indicative of Montgomery’s greater overall athleticism and feel for his arsenal moving forwards in the playoffs, following his second season since his 2018 Tommy John surgery.
Similar to how an off-speed pitch can throw a batter off-balance in an at-bat, a large disparity between a starter and reliever can enhance the latter’s effectiveness. Chad Green entered in the fifth inning, playing his velocity off of Monty’s craft. Green pitched two innings without allowing a baserunner, straight-up overpowering the Rays with his upper-nineties fastball and its 89th percentile spin.
By the time Green came out for Zack Britton, Gleyber Torers’ blast had made it a three-run game. The Yanks tacked on another run, but it wouldn’t matter as the relief corps continued on to hold the Rays to their lowest run total since September 7th.
I defended Aaron Boone’s decision to use Deivi García as an opener and “bulk” with J.A. Happ, and I’ll do it again. They pitched poorly, but Boone was able to stagger his bullpen’s usage between Games Two and Four. Even when Tanaka got shellacked, allowing five through four, Boone refrained from burning the pen and creating an opportunity for an even costlier loss. Retaining bullpen flexibility through Games Two and Three was essential to closing out last night’s game. Now, with Gerrit Cole set to pitch Game Five, the Yankees are in a good position to ride their ace to the American League Championship Series, and exact revenge on Houston for 2017*.