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Yankees Magazine: Unshakable

Looks can be deceiving. With Jordan Montgomery, just about everything can beguile.
Yankees Magazine

If an average person off the street walked into the Yankees clubhouse on the morning of April 12 and looked at Jordan Montgomery, one thought might immediately come to mind.

That guy must have had a few too many cups of coffee.

If an average person off the street walked into the Yankees clubhouse on the morning of April 12 and looked at Jordan Montgomery, one thought might immediately come to mind.

That guy must have had a few too many cups of coffee.

Montgomery is fidgeting. He picks up his phone, scrolls through something, puts the phone down, then he cycles through those motions again seemingly every minute.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Now he's on his feet, pacing and stretching his arms back and forth. Thirty seconds later, he collapses back into his leather chair and grabs a bottle of water. He takes the tiniest of sips then puts the bottle down.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

He's making circles in his chair now -- full rotations. The guy seems incapable of sitting still.

At 6 foot 6 and solidly built, Montgomery's presence is hard to ignore, but his teammates do their best not to disturb him on the day he is pitching. Dellin Betances walks by, delivering a quick fist-bump. Bryan Mitchell, on the way to his own locker, offers a silent handshake.

Clearly the ball of nerves has no effect on his next-door neighbor, the jolly and carefree Adam Warren, who is having an animated conversation with a Yankees employee.

It's 10:39 a.m. Montgomery is literally spinning. But it's notable because he'll soon throw the game's first pitch -- his first as a Major Leaguer. How many more will follow?

Two-and-a-half hours later, Montgomery is on the mound. He's standing tall and calm. And the only thing spinning is his curveball.

***

What if I give up a home run on my very first pitch? And then another one on my second and third?

What if I can't even figure out how to throw a strike?

What if aliens beam down into the Stadium before I even get to the mound?

Okay, that last one is a stretch, but the first two thoughts are unavoidable when you're hours away from taking a Big League mound for the first time. "You just start thinking of the worst things that could possibly happen," Montgomery said later. "I was nervous. It kind of gets in your head, the bigness of it all."

First-game jitters are normal. Everyone has them and everyone remembers how crippling those racing thoughts can be.

"The worst part is the waiting," said Yankees catcher Austin Romine. "I remember my first start, I was so nervous. I didn't want to make a mistake. I wanted to prove something to everybody and I was worrying about too many outside factors rather than knowing that this is who I am, that I can do this, and that's good enough."

Proving able to overcome the fear, the doubt (and maybe the aliens) is what separates the success stories from the guys whose names you don't remember. Montgomery, he wants to be remembered. And despite what seems to admittedly amateur eyes to be restless body syndrome in the hours prior to stepping between the lines, Montgomery's confidence is unshakable.

"I think Jordan can focus in on the fact that he's good enough," Romine said. "That's why he has had success."

Going into Spring Training, a lot of talk centered on the two rotation spots up for grabs -- and the number of pitchers vying for them. But for such a tall guy, Montgomery kept a rather low profile. Despite a distinct lack of hype about the left-hander, Montgomery picked up on something everyone else seemed to miss.

"I felt like I was really close to the Majors after the year I had in 2016, and I didn't think I really had much left to prove at Triple-A," he said. And he's right; in six starts with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the lefty went 5-1 with a 0.97 ERA. "So it was only a matter of time. I don't read into the hype and didn't listen to everything that was being said in Spring Training. Hype is just hype until you actually back it up anyway. I knew I had a chance at it, so I just worked hard and I felt like I earned it."

And while some reporters and fans may have overlooked Montgomery, his teammates and coaches sure didn't. Every time he would throw a bullpen or pitch in a game, Yankees Manager Joe Girardi would marvel at how good he looked, how well his stuff played, how he was making Big Leaguers miss.

"I like him a lot," Girardi said in March. "I think he's got a really good downward angle. I think he's got deception. I'm very curious."

Video: BAL@NYY: Montgomery fans eight over seven innings

Montgomery's catchers echoed the sentiment. "I saw him in Spring Training and I knew he was going to be good -- you could just see it from his stuff and the way professional hitters were swinging off of him," Romine said. "It's all there for him. He's tall, he's left-handed, and the ball comes from a weird slot. He has four pitches, he throws in the low- and mid-90s, and he commands his pitches. You have a guy commanding three to four pitches throwing in the mid-90s from a weird arm slot, you're going to get through a lot of innings."

Montgomery throws over the top, which, combined with his intimidating height, allows him to hide the ball well. All four of his pitches -- fastball, cutter, curveball, change-up (which Montgomery believes is his best pitch) -- look similar out of his hand, and he can place the ball anywhere he wants.

"I just think he's the overall package," Romine said. And if that package has to go through a bit of a pregame jitterbug before it gets delivered, then so be it.

***

If the average fan sitting in Yankee Stadium watches Montgomery pitch, one thought might immediately come to mind.

Wow, this guy seems like he's totally in control.

That's because the Montgomery who stands on the mound looks nothing like a fidgety and anxious rookie.

When Montgomery made his Big League debut on April 12, the Yankees were coming off two straight wins following a disappointing 1-4 start to the season. He took the ball and pitched into the fifth inning, and while he didn't get the win, the team did. The left-hander struck out seven batters in 4 2/3 innings, including the last two men he faced right after giving up a double to lead off the fifth.

Five days later, he threw just 88 pitches -- one fewer than in his debut -- but he worked into the seventh inning and picked up the win. His first career victory was the Yankees' eighth in a row, vaulting them into a tie atop the American League East.

Montgomery hasn't been perfect -- he's still learning the nuances of Big League ball -- but he's been plenty effective. The southpaw pitched into the sixth inning in each of his four starts after his debut without allowing more than three earned runs in any of them. And most impressively -- aside from his pure talent, of course -- has been that ability to turn the nerves off.

"I like that he's always one pitch away from getting out of everything," said CC Sabathia, whom Montgomery seeks out in the dugout between starts, often sitting alongside the big left-handed veteran. "He can get himself out of jams with one pitch. Jams happen, and he's one pitch away at all times from getting out of it. Whether it's his change-up, his two-seamer; he's got it, and he can locate all his pitches really well. That's what you need to be successful."

Opponents struggled to start rallies against Montgomery because when he gets into trouble, he is relentless. Through five starts, opposing hitters with men on base were batting .234 against Montgomery. Of the 54 batters he faced in those situations, the lefty struck out 11 and induced five double plays. Whether he has his A-pitches or his B-pitches -- or barely any pitches left in his arm -- Montgomery has proven to his teammates that they can trust him with the ball.

"So far we've seen him when he had his good stuff and he has dominated guys, and we've seen him when he didn't have his best stuff and he was still able to get guys out and compete through innings," said Warren. "That's the kind of stuff you look at from young guys; you want to see if they can compete and see if they belong."

Montgomery belongs. When he was taken out of each of his first five starts, the Yankees were either ahead or within two runs. He left his team in a position to win every time, which makes the days in between his starts a lot easier to bear.

"You only get one day every five days to really get to do something, so you want to make the most of it and help the team win," Montgomery said. "You know you're not going to have your best game every single time you're out there, so you just have to grind and compete and get through those days where your stuff is a little off. Mentally, you have to be able to out-compete the other guys.

"You can't let things snowball up here. If you have a bad inning, you just have to flush it and say to yourself, 'I'm going to turn this into a quality start, not allow any more runs, and keep moving forward from here.' It's worked so far in my career, so I'm going to keep trying to do it."

***

It's early May, and Jordan Montgomery is slouching in his chair in the clubhouse. He's not pitching today, so he's relaxed -- tap, tap, tapping away on his phone. His neighbor Warren arrives, they have a nice chat; both are all smiles.

They're two Carolina kids; Montgomery from South and Warren North, so they have a friendly rivalry in just about everything. But they've got a lot in common, too. "We've both got that southern boy personality," Warren laughs. "Jordan is a fun guy to be around."

While Montgomery is still learning his way around Yankee Stadium and New York City -- he lives in a hotel in Manhattan for now, and he's looking forward to some off-days so he can go explore -- he has found a groove amongst his teammates. In a few days the Yankees will be on the road visiting the Cubs and the Reds, two National League clubs. That means Montgomery will have to bat, so he's taking BP with Sabathia and a couple of the other pitchers. When Montgomery's turn comes up, he bunts a few balls and then swings away, belting one all the way to the wall in right-center, 385 feet away. Montgomery smiles; Sabathia laughs.

"I like his demeanor, I like his attitude, I like the way he works, I like the way he asks questions," Sabathia said. "He asks me questions about everything. Sitting on the bench we talk about everything, so I'm trying to get to know him and know his background. He's a cool guy, and it's been fun conversing with him, learning from him and having him learn from me. I think he's on track to being a very successful starter in the Big Leagues."

Montgomery is proving himself, and he feels confident. In Spring Training, hardly anyone knew who he was; now he's taking the ball every fifth day in a Yankees uniform. He still gets nervous before his starts, but he has his routine, he says -- stretching out his arm with the trainer, then a lot of waiting around, and finally a quick snack (usually a banana) on the way out to the field. He rarely -- if ever -- worries about aliens. In between starts, there's rest, bullpens and hanging out with the guys.

Whatever he's doing, it's working so far.

It's 3:50 p.m., and Montgomery is back in the clubhouse, ever so slightly spinning in his chair -- tiny back and forth motions as he talks to his teammates.

This guy doesn't have a care in the world.

He's stationary, yet he's in constant motion. He's moving, but he's not going anywhere. He may be the new guy, but something about him just fits.

Hilary Giorgi is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the June 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

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