HOUSTON – As winter progresses Jordan Montgomery spent his days at Tread Athletics, a performance lab about 10 miles outside of Charlotte, honing his pitching skills. While Tread’s coaches appreciated almost everything about Montgomery, from his size to his competitiveness to his willingness to learn, what they loved most was his curveball. They loved it so much that it was given a nickname:
The Death Ball.
To the naked eye, it looks like a perfectly fine curveball, and based on spin rate and stopping power alone, it’s nothing special. And it confuses batsmen anyway.
Jordan Alvarez learned his power firsthand Sunday night in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. The Houston Astros Slugger, one of the best hitters in the world, faced Montgomery three times after a division series in which he hit four home runs in four games. All three ended with Álvarez hitting the death ball. No pitcher had ever struck out Álvarez three times in a single game.
Montgomery is not just any pitcher. Acquired from the Texas Rangers At the trade deadline for exactly one night like tonight, the 30-year-old posted one of the best – and certainly most important – starts of his career in Game 1. He pitched 6⅓ scoreless innings and neutralized Álvarez in the Rangers’ 2-0 win that stole Houston’s home-field advantage and silenced the once-vocal crowd of 42,872 at Minute Maid Park.
In the three at-bats Montgomery faced Álvarez, he threw 17 pitches – eight sinkers, six death balls, two four-seam fastballs and even a changeup, a rarity for a left-handed pitcher against a left-handed batter. He worked inside and out, up and down, completely avoiding the middle of the strike zone. If a pitcher wants to beat Álvarez, he has to empty his bag of tricks.
It’s a good thing Montgomery’s curveball is magical.
“When it comes out of his hand, it looks like a fastball,” Álvarez said. “That makes it a little more difficult. The way he releases the ball, the angle he releases it at, makes it a little harder to pick up and makes it look like a fastball.”
That’s why context matters, even in the analysis that says so much about baseball today. At Tread, Montgomery worked not only on the shape of his pitches, but also on how he presented them. Álvarez suggests that Montgomery’s curveball looks like a fastball, which may sound strange – the average velocity of Montgomery’s fastball on Sunday night was 93.3 mph; on the curveball, 79.8 – but he’s not wrong. That’s how Montgomery and his coaches designed it.
They recognized that Montgomery had two things working in his favor on the field: his size and his release point. It didn’t turn particularly hard and didn’t have the looping feature that could provide a more aesthetically pleasing turn. It came out flat and broke late – and combined with that sinker and four-seam fastball, it morphed into the Reaper.
Montgomery’s death ball release point is 80.2 inches from the ground, the second highest vertical release point on a curve in baseball (behind his opponent in Game 1, Justin Verlander). Montgomery releases his four-seater 80.4 inches vertically and his sinker 80.9 inches—and the horizontal release points of all three are just half an inch apart. The tunnel effect tricks hitters into thinking they’re seeing something when it’s something else, and that’s what had Álvarez lashing out, with five whiffs among the 17 pitches he saw.
When he was about 12 years old and growing up in South Carolina, Montgomery learned to throw a turn when his father, Jim, helped him wrap tape around Coke cans to give them extra weight. Montgomery would try to throw them into a nearby trash can. Eventually he got the feel of the pitch, took it to the University of South Carolina and used it to advance to the major leagues New York Yankees. They sold him to them St Louis Cardinals last season, and the Cardinals received a bounty from the Rangers in late July that brought him to Texas.
Upon his arrival, Montgomery did not believe he would be the team’s postseason ace, not with the subsequent acquisition of Max ScherzerPlus Nathan Eovaldi Pitching like a frontline starter. But Eovaldi was injured. And Scherzer did too. And Montgomery not only started Game 1 of Texas’ wild-card series against Tampa Bay, but he also did the same against the Astros, whose seventh straight ALCS appearance extended the league record.
Álvarez helped bring the Astros here. The 26-year-old is a dream hitter: powerful but precise. He destroys right-handed pitchers — and crushes left-handed pitchers, too. His holes are more pinpricks than Swiss cheese. Cutting it requires a surgeon’s precision.
Dr. Montgomery began the first part with a clear plan: work Álvarez inside. He started with a low-and-inside sinker that Álvarez fouled out, moved up and inside with a sinker that Álvarez took for a ball, and then hit three more throws inside: a curveball that Álvarez took for a ball took a hit, a sinker he fouled off, and a curveball he swung through.
“We know he likes to get extended, and we wanted to get him to hit us inside so he could get a little uncomfortable,” the Rangers catcher said Jonah Heim, an All-Star widely praised for his game-winning and defining skills. “And if he winds up a little bit, we try to get him and the curveball plays.” [Montgomery] did an amazing job.”
The second blow might have been even more impressive. In all of Montgomery’s years in the AL East, he learned that the best hitters liked him Rafael Devers, will eventually sell out on an indoor seat if you continue there. After missing low and in with a sinker, Montgomery shot a four-pointer from the middle that Álvarez punched through. He came up and in with a sinker that Álvarez had fouled, tried to change his eye level with an even higher four-seater and went inside again – a turnover, a sinker was fouled – before another death ball.
“I wanted to make him swing,” Montgomery said. “I wanted him to beat me there with my best throw. And usually if you don’t miss the middle, it’s a good day.”
That’s the thing about Montgomery. He’s not a nibbler. He’s not one to pick at corners. He goes straight at batsmen. And he’s not afraid to dive deep into his repertoire. Rangers outfielder earlier this week Robbie Grossman He informed Montgomery that he would have to use a sliding step to the plate instead of his full delivery when no one was on base. Well, in his third at-bat against Álvarez, who was down 2-0, Montgomery pulled another trick, freezing Álvarez on perhaps the most hittable pitch he’d seen all day, a sinker deep and across the middle of the plate .
“It’s not just the curveball,” the Astros third baseman said Alex Bregman said. “He has a lot of other weapons as well and he can execute really well. So I think it’s really just a matter of execution. It’s a good pitch.”
Montgomery knows this and so after his first punch against Álvarez he threw nothing else. With the score 2-1, Montgomery threw a curve toward the bottom of the strike zone; Álvarez swung over it. The next throw was a rebound that was way off the plate, and Álvarez was flailing, looking less like one of the best hitters in the world and more like a guy who was crazy about what he was doing saw, was completely perplexed.
Three at-bats. Three strikeouts swing to end the inning. And a great achievement, both for the Rangers and for his family.
On Saturday, Montgomery’s wife, McKenzie, celebrated her birthday. And on Sunday it was his father’s, and Jim had wanted a playoff win as the perfect gift. An ALCS win against a future Hall of Famer was enough.
Montgomery isn’t done yet. He will likely start another game in this series when he faces Verlander again. Before the game, he will complete the meticulous plyoball drill routine that his coach Tyler Zombro taught him at Tread – which helps him find consistency in his delivery and conviction in his movements. He will meet with Heim and his pitching coach Mike Maddux, with whom he hit it off almost immediately after his arrival, and he will work out a game plan.
And then he’ll try to do exactly what he’s done all postseason and what he hopes to do throughout the World Series: spin them to death.