After 'long road,' Montero holds his own in MLB debut

May 30th, 2024

DETROIT -- When began his season at Triple-A Toledo with 12 consecutive scoreless innings across three starts, the last four innings came in an April 12 duel with then-Indianapolis starter and baseball’s top pitching prospect, Paul Skenes. They combined for 7 1/3 scoreless innings and 14 strikeouts that day at Toledo’s Fifth Third Field.

So when Montero got the call Tuesday night that he was being promoted to Detroit for his Major League debut Wednesday afternoon against the Pirates as an extra player for the doubleheader, he went through the emotions of his long-awaited callup, including his mom crying on the phone. He then checked out the matchup. Sure enough, he was matched up with Skenes again.

“When I found out he was on the opposite side, I was excited,” Montero said through translation from Tigers manager of Spanish communications Carlos Guillen. “I know the guy, I know what he’s up to, and I love the competition. I love to compete, especially competing against guys like him.”

While Skenes reached the Majors after 12 Minor League starts, Montero’s path to Detroit lasted seven years and 115 starts in the Tigers’ system. The 23-year-old Venezuelan was on track to become a Minor League free agent before his breakout 2023 campaign put him on the Tigers’ radar, rising to Detroit’s No. 7 prospect. But there he was on Wednesday, taking the mound at Comerica Park, tasked again with trading zeros with Skenes.

“It’s one of those things that you dream about since you were a kid,” Montero said. “Fulfilling it and making it come true is very exciting. It feels great, because it’s been a long road. But in the end, pitching here, it was worth it.”

Montero held his own but paid dearly for two home runs in the Tigers’ 10-2 loss in the nightcap to split Wednesday’s doubleheader. The first was a 96 mph fastball at the top of the strike zone to Andrew McCutchen, who sent it deep to left for a three-run home run in the third inning. The second was a hanging curveball to Nick Gonzales, whose solo homer padded Pittsburgh’s lead to begin the fourth inning.

The righty made plenty of other pitches, showing off his impressive array of breaking pitches in the process. He recovered from a 3-0 count to catch Oneil Cruz looking at a slider for a called third strike to prevent further damage in the third inning, then posted back-to-back strikeouts to end the fourth inning and begin the fifth.

Montero fanned five batters over 4 1/3 innings and drew 10 swinging strikes, half of them off his slider. His curveball wasn’t as effective as he needed it to be, but had plenty of movement, set up by high spin rates. One curveball topped out at 3,141 rpm, according to Statcast, comparable to Reese Olson’s top spin on his better days.

The debut ended at 87 pitches following a one-out walk to McCutchen in the fifth. Before manager A.J. Hinch took the ball from Montero, who was returned to Triple-A Toledo after the game, he paused to give him a short message.

“I told him when I was on the mound to take him out that he’ll forever be a big leaguer,” Hinch said. “His name’s in the book, and he’s going to be back, but I’m really proud of his effort. Obviously he’d want a couple pitches back that left the yard, but I’m happy for that kid to work his way to the big leagues.”