These are the games that allow you to come all the way back, at last. These are the nights when you start to believe your body doesn’t hold a grudge against you. When you are young and strong and bulletproof, the last thing you worry about is that the very thing that made you special — a golden left arm, say — will ever betray you.
Until it does.
And then you need a night like the night Jordan Montgomery had Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, when it was easy to forget that this was 2020 and not 2017, when he’d fallen out of the sky and announced himself as the next Andy Pettitte. That was before the elbow barked. That was before Tommy John. That was before he learned the lesson no athlete wants to learn.
“Confidence,” Montgomery said Tuesday after the Yankees finished off a 9-6 win, finding the word to best describe how beautiful he looked for six innings against a depleted but still formidable Atlanta lineup. “I really went after them, trusted my pitches better, threw my cutter more, executed more fastballs and changeups late.”
A return of the Yankees’ “A” offense didn’t hurt, either.
“Yes,” he said, laughing. “Especially when they get you eight runs.”
The smile gives voice to the humbling that Montgomery has endured the last couple of years, after he’d burst on the scene in 2017 with a 9-7 record and 3.88 ERA in 29 starts, when he emerged as every bit as vital a part of the Yankees’ youth movement that year as Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres.
But the forearm started to stiffen early the next year, and he was diagnosed with a strained flexor tendon, and by early June he was on Dr. Christopher Ahmad’s operating table. Doctors can tell you about how much better your arm might be afterward. They can give you stats — you hear numbers like a “90 percent success rate.”
Still, you wouldn’t step on a plane advertising a 90 percent success rate.
This is a pitcher’s professional life. And you just never know until you know. He’d pitched well against Boston in his debut this year, then got knocked around pretty good last Thursday in Philadelphia, the Phillies denting him for five runs in four innings.
And then: Tuesday.
He pitched quickly. He mixed his repertoire. He can be as self-deprecating as he wants to be, talking about pitching with a lead but the fact is he set the tone for the night with a terrific first inning, getting Dansby Swanson, Travis d’Arnaud and Freddie Freeman out 1-2-3 on 13 pitches. Nothing better than hanging the first zero.
Except when your teammates make sure it’s 3-0 by the time you go out there again. And then 6-0 a few innings later. And then 8-0.
“I really felt like I was in a good rhythm,” Montgomery said. “I think I can build off this.”
Aaron Boone thinks he will. “His stuff was good,” the Yankees manager said. “He was dictating some counts. He looked awfully comfortable most of the night.”
He staggered a bit in the sixth, allowing a line-drive single to d’Arnaud, a scratch single to Freeman and then a prodigious bomb by Marcell Ozuna. He seemed to lose his sharpness that third tour through the order.
“And they made me pay,” Montgomery said.
Still: Six innings, three runs, four hits, four strikeouts? It seemed that’s what Montgomery gave the Yankees every fifth day three years ago, back when he was young and bulletproof, back before his money-maker turned its back on him temporarily, before the long road through rehab and back to The Bronx.
There are no guarantees and he knows that — “Major league hitters,” he laughed, “are pretty good” — but every step forward is one to be savored, at least until the next start. These are the games that allow you to come all the way back.
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