Royals' Prospect Mike Montgomery Gaining Confidence

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Mike Montgomery's last start for the Omaha Storm Chasers against the Nashville Sounds on April 24 was telling about where he is as a prospect in the Kansas City Royals' organization.

He commanded his change-up well -- missing a lot of bats, buried a couple of wild pitches, strayed from his game plan, and then found his way. He gave up three earned runs on seven hits and one walk in seven innings. It wasn't pretty, but he picked up his second win of the season.

The 5-3 win over Nashville was Omaha's tenth straight at home in a season in which the Storm Chasers can seem to do no wrong. They are 16-5 and already have a seven game lead in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) American North over the second place Iowa Cubs.

Of course, Montgomery would rather be in the starting rotation for the Royals, but he realizes he hasn't pitched well enough to be there. So, he's enjoying the ride in Triple-A, while trying to improve.

"Going into the season, I don't know if we had expectations, but we've come out hot and it's a lot of fun," Montgomery told me in the clubhouse after his win against Nashville. "For me today, I was wanting to throw strikes and keep it going."

Montgomery, a first round supplemental pick of the Royals in 2008, was rated the No. 31 highest prospect by MLB.com coming into the season and he is the highest rated Royals' prospect, according to Baseball America. The 22-year-old, 6-4 lefty struggled through most of the 2011 season in Omaha, posting a 5-11 record with a lofty 5.32 ERA. It was his first year in Triple-A after successful campaigns in lower levels of the minor leagues.

Even after a down year, expectations remained high for Montgomery (as I wrote about here) coming into the 2012 season. But he started off shaky. In his first two outings he was unable to get through five innings because his pitch count was too high, thanks in part to the number of walks he issued (7 in 7.2 IP).

But in his third start, on April 19, he shut down the Round Rock Express, giving up just one earned run in seven innings. He struck out seven and walked two in a game in which he threw 57 strikes in 89 pitches. He followed that start with his win at home against Nashville -- the game that is telling about where he is as a prospect right now.

With the game tied 1-1 heading into the fourth inning, Montgomery began depending on his breaking stuff, attempting to trick hitters rather than going right at them with his fastball. The Sounds scored two runs that inning, including an opposite field home run by right fielder Caleb Gindl.

"In the fourth inning, he got away from what he had been doing the first three innings and he gave up two runs," Omaha manager Mike Jirschele told me in his office after the game. "And Doug [Henry, the pitching coach] confronted him.

"That's Doug's job, to make sure we stay on these guys so they stay focused. It's why they are here, to learn that and develop into good pitchers and move on to the big leagues. If he (Montgomery) does that in the big leagues, he wouldn't even have made it through the fourth inning."

"In that fourth inning, I went away from my fastball a little bit," Montgomery admitted. "I threw a lot more pitches that inning, and I gave them a chance to get into hitters' counts. After that, I was just focusing on attacking the zone and I was able to use my fastball more effectively."

According to Storm Chasers' play-by-play radio broadcaster, Mark Nasser, this has been an issue for Montgomery that dates back to the 2011 season.

"I know Doug has been on him about that in the past, saying, 'Look, establish the fastball first,'" Nasser told me. "It's not the first time this year and it happened multiple times last year. He's got a good fastball -- anywhere between 90-95 with some life to it, and you've seen the results.

"He walked two in his last start and only one today. He's going seven innings and that's what an ace does."

Nasser's use of the word "ace" refers to the possibility of Montgomery developing into an ace at the big league level. Montgomery started the season as the fifth starter in Omaha, but according to Nasser, that's just the way it worked out coming out of Spring Training.

"They don't manipulate it down at minor league Spring Training to make sure that he's the Opening Day guy like they would at the big league level," Nasser said.

So, has Montgomery turned a corner in Omaha after winning his last two starts? And has he changed anything in his mechanics? It's too early to answer the first question. But the second one has multiple answers.

According to Nasser, Henry and Rick Knapp -- an organizational pitching coach -- lowered Montgomery's arm slot just a little over his last two starts and that seems to be helping his control. Montgomery also says he's been working on tightening up his mechanics and, after brainstorming with Henry, he found a new grip on his curve ball toward the end of last season that he's comfortable with and has been using this season.

"I went through a couple of grips on the ball last year and nothing really felt comfortable," Montgomery said. "I found a grip that worked and stuck with it. It didn't feel comfortable at first, but after a month or so, I got used to it."

After making the changes and seeing results, albeit brief, he says he's starting to feel more confident on the mound.

"I don't know if it's just because it's my second year here or not," Montgomery said, "But I think it has more to do with me starting to figure myself out as a pitcher. I've got a long way to go, but when I start to see results while working on things and kind of have it pay off, it's a good confidence builder for me.

"It's a long season, so I have to maintain and keep getting better, but I definitely am confident going forward."

Photo: Minda Haas

This is Lee Warren's fourth season covering the Omaha Storm Chasers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. Follow him on Twitter @OmahaBaseball for updates about the Storm Chasers.

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