NEW YORK — More than three weeks after the Yankees made him their top trade deadline acquisition — and a night after the pitcher he replaced, Jordan Montgomery, spun a one-hit shutout to further an impressive opening run with the Cardinals — Frankie Montas was able to show the Bronx a representative version of his capabilities. Facing the Mets in front of a Yankee Stadium season high of 49,217 boisterous fans, the 29-year-old righty survived a rocky first inning, got strong support on both sides of the ball (save for one glitch), and moved Pete Alonso to bat-breaking frustration in what turned out to be a 4-2 Yankees win, giving the team its first series victory in August and salvaging a split of the season’s four-game Subway Series.
Montas allowed two runs in 5.2 innings, scattering six hits and a walk while striking out six — his highest total since his seven-strikeout effort at Yankee Stadium on June 28 while pitching for the A’s. His 15 called strikes was his highest total since that outing, and his 27% CSW (which included 10 swinging strikes) matched his season rate, heralding a return to form following a rough stretch of nearly eight weeks, during which shoulder inflammation, the trade, a trip to the bereavement list and poor performance limited him to a 5.90 ERA and 5.08 FIP in seven starts totaling just 29 innings.
“Packed house in the Bronx, [his] first Subway Series, he went out there and did his thing,” marveled Aaron Judge afterwards. “Working all his pitches, kind of similar to [Domingo] Germán… Backdoor cutter and backdoor slider to some of those lefties early on to kind of steal a strike, and then he got to that sinker-splitter combo. It’s pretty tough to tell the difference between both of those.”
“He showed some bulldog,” added Judge, whose fourth-inning solo homer — number 48 for the season and his second in as many nights — off Taijuan Walker kicked off the scoring. Judge also capped off a go-ahead two-run rally in the seventh by plating the Yankees’ final run via a single off Joely Rodríguez.
Coming off a career-best season in which he tied for the American League lead with 32 starts, placed third in both innings (187) and FIP (3.37), fourth in ERA (3.37), and tied for fifth in WAR (4.0), Montas was pretty much the last Athletics star standing once the team traded away Chris Bassitt, Matt Olson, and Matt Chapman after the lockout ended in the spring. With no pitcher of Max Scherzer’s caliber on the market, Montas was positioned to be one of the deadline’s top starting pitcher targets, and despite exiting his July 3 start after one inning and then missing a couple of turns due to his bout of shoulder inflammation, he retained that status, pitching to a 3.18 ERA and 3.38 FIP through his first 19 starts.
The Yankees were among the many teams in pursuit of the Reds’ Luis Castillo, but after the Mariners sent a four-prospect package to Cincinnati in exchange for him on July 30, general manager Brian Cashman responded by sending his own to Oakland in exchange for Montas and reliever Lou Trivino on August 1. The death of Montas’ mother-in-law forced him to the bereavement list before he could report, and when he finally made his Yankees debut on August 7 in St. Louis, he hadn’t pitched in 11 days.
It didn’t go well. After allowing one run in the first inning, Montas took the mound with a 4-1 lead to start the second but surrendered six runs in an excruciating 33-pitch inning capped by a three-run homer by Nolan Arenado, and exited after three innings. His second start, a five-inning, two-run effort in Boston, was better, but with five hits, two walks, and a hit batter, he had only one clean frame, and departed after just 78 pitches. The Yankees won that one, 3-2, their only victory in a seven-game stretch. Montas finally took the mound in pinstripes on August 18 against the Blue Jays, but again, he failed to avoid a big inning, surrendering five second-inning runs, capped by a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. three-run homer. While he lingered for six innings, he allowed six runs in a 9-2 loss.
Prior to Tuesday’s game, there was much talk at Yankee Stadium regarding Montas’ pitch mix since the trade. As highlighted by a tidbit from MLB Network’s research team, he hadn’t thrown his splitter or slider — his two most effective pitches when it comes to generating whiffs — as much since the trade because he hadn’t been able to get ahead of hitters with his four-seamer and sinker. Manager Aaron Boone suggested that the data was a sample-size aberration reflecting Montas pitching from behind in both the count and the score, saying, “I think you’re talking about a very small sample in some games where he’s been behind a little bit, maybe hasn’t had the exact command, so he’s not dictating counts exactly how he’s wanted to. So I think that’s something that will probably even out a little bit. But there hasn’t been an emphasis on that.”
Montas was more effective at establishing the fastball on Tuesday night, though he went more to his cutter (his most effective pitch this year in terms of contact) than his slider:
Frankie Montas Pitch Mix
|Pitch||OAK||NYY 1-3||NYY 4|
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Montas had generated a 28.8% whiff rate on his four-seamers in Oakland but had managed just a 15.8% rate through his first three starts as a Yankee. That was up to 44.4% (four out of nine) on Tuesday — with those whiffs coming in key moments.
“Huge,” said Montas when asked how it felt to notch his strongest start in pinstripes, particularly given the context of both his recent struggles and those of his team, which entered having won just 14 of its last 39 games. “I feel way better, to go out there and compete, throw good pitches… Definitely threw the ball well tonight, better than I had been throwing.”
Beyond a 27-pitch first inning in which he worked around a one-out single by Starling Marte and a seven-pitch walk by Francisco Lindor, Montas showed electrifying stuff, changing hitters’ eye levels and finding an extra gear when he needed it most. He finished the labor-intensive first inning by winning a seven-pitch battle against Daniel Vogelbach with a high 97.7-mph four-seamer, the fastest of his 13 fastballs in that inning by a full click. He escaped a two-on, no-out jam in the second by generating weak contact with the aforementioned pitch combo, getting Brett Baty to chase a low-and-away splitter for a 69-mph groundball force out (Baty was fast enough to avoid the double play) and on his next pitch inducing Tomás Nido to slap a high sinker for a 60-mph double play ball, complete with a nice glove-flip by shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa:
“The first inning obviously got really long so for him to be able to… get through six there after that first inning, I thought he settled in really nice,” said Boone afterwards. “Even the first inning, he gives up the bloop hit to Marte and then I thought he made a lot of good pitches to Lindor, I just thought Lindor had a really good at-bat to work a walk against him.”
Montas followed that frame by striking out the next five batters. After being worked upstairs and downstairs via his cutter, four-seamer, and sinker, Brandon Nimmo swung through a center-cut 97.5-mph heater. Marte was caught looking at a 97.3-mph four-seamer right at the bottom edge of the zone, and then Lindor chased a splitter in the dirt to end the third. After fouling off an 89-mph cutter at the bottom of the zone, Alonso swung through a 98.2-mph four-seamer (Montas’ fastest pitch of the night) just above it, exasperating him to the point of breaking his bat over his knee, and then Vogelbach, after taking a low splitter for ball two, chased high cheese for strike three. Wanting no part of all that, Jeff McNeil swung at the first pitch he saw, rocketing a low 97.2-mph sinker for a groundball to second baseman Gleyber Torres, 110-mph but a routine play nonetheless. It added up to an impressive bit of north-south work:
“I just really didn’t want to chase that pitch up in the zone,” Alonso said afterwards. “I saw the ball well, but I don’t know why I swung. It just looked too good to hold up. I knew immediately it was out of my zone. I was just really frustrated at chasing at that pitch.”
The Yankees followed Montas’ strongest stretch by finally breaking through against Walker, who had been perfect through three innings. Though Andrew Benintendi’s leadoff single was erased via a DJ LeMahieu double play ball, Judge won a seven-pitch battle with a 116-mph, 453-foot homer…
… and the Yankees added another run via a pair of singles and a pair of walks, the last a two-out bases-loaded one by Oswaldo Cabrera. The 23-year-old rookie, who was called up just a week ago, figured prominently in the top of the fifth as well. After Mark Canha’s leadoff double, a catcher’s interference call to the benefit of Baty, a sacrifice bunt and then a lineout, Marte hit a sharp single to right field. Canha scored, but Cabrera — who started at four different positions in his first week in the majors — made a strong peg home to Kyle Higashioka to nab Baty:
While that saved a run, Montas departed after the Yankees’ defense bungled its way into allowing the tying run in the sixth. With two outs and Alonso on first base, McNeil hit a drive to deep right center field. Alonso stumbled while rounding third, forcing him to retreat when Judge relayed the ball to Torres in short right center. McNeil, however, was halfway to third base, and when he doubled back to compensate for Alonso’s return, nobody was covering second base. With Torres getting caught up in a footrace to the bag — which he lost — Alonso snuck home with the tying run:
That ended Montas’ night at 92 pitches. Clarke Schmidt came on, retired Canha on a grounder, and — aided in part by an eighth-inning Kiner-Falefa/Torres double play that Boone called “really special” — took the Yankees to the precipice of victory before yielding to Wandy Peralta in a two-out, bases-loaded jam in the ninth. Peralta got Lindor to fly to center to secure the win.
Since losing the first two games of the Subway Series at Citi Field on July 26-27, the Yankees had gone just 9-15 with one series win, taking three straight from the Royals from July 28-30. They proceeded to lose 14 out of their next 18 games, however, with their offense grinding to a halt; from August 9-20, they went 2-9 and were shut out four times while scoring just 21 runs. Not until Sunday’s win over the Blue Jays and Monday’s win over the Mets did they notch back-to-back wins in August, and the two-game sweep of the Mets marked their first series win since the calendar flipped.
It’s a start, and particularly with Benintendi coming around as well (6-for-10 with two walks, two doubles and a homer in their past three games after hitting .192/.302/.301 through his first 21 games), the Yankees’ trade deadline suddenly looks more successful regardless of how Montgomery or Joey Gallo are doing elsewhere. If Montas can continue to pitch up to Tuesday’s standards against top competition, the Yankees will be a whole lot stronger come October.