Mike Montgomery’s long journey to the Cubs’ biggest out in 108 years

Warming up during Game 7 of the World Series, Cubs left-hander Mike Montgomery thought to himself, “What happens if I’m out there on the final out? What am I going to do?”

Montgomery had no idea how he would react, no idea if he would even pitch. He had warmed up four times — in the third, fifth, ninth and 10th innings. He knew going into the game that he was gassed. His manager, Joe Maddon, had acknowledged as much to the FOX broadcast team. And Montgomery’s first warmup went so poorly, he thought, “I hope I don’t get into this game.”

He got into the game, finally, with two outs in the 10th, the Indians’ Rajai Davis on first base and the Cubs leading, 8-7. Two pitches later, he retired Michael Martinez on a groundout to third, securing the Cubs’ first World Series title since 1908.

Just over three months before, Montgomery had been “a little bummed” that the Mariners traded him to the Cubs. Suddenly he was not only at the pinnacle of the sport, but the apex of history,

“It was kind of a blur,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery broke instinctively toward third after the ball was hit, then watched the play develop as Kris Bryant fielded the slow bouncer and fired to Anthony Rizzo at first.

Rizzo gloved the throw, and the celebration began.

Montgomery jumped up and down twice, both arms upraised, then tossed his glove in the air. He then moved in the general direction of Rizzo and Bryant, who were running toward each other, and wound up in the center of his jumping, joyous teammates, all 6-foot-5 of him, both arms aloft once more. (You can see it all in the previously unreleased video, with Montgomery’s reaction isolated, at the top of the page.)

Only later did Montgomery realize that he had not sought out his catcher, Miguel Montero, to embrace him. On the team plane that night, Montgomery approached Montero, thinking perhaps he had done something wrong.

“I’m like, ‘Miggy, I didn’t know if I was supposed to come running up to you or what,’” Montgomery said. “The play was to first base, third to first. I just kind of ran to where the ball was. That was my first instinct.

“If I would have struck him out, I probably would have ran toward the catcher. I know, from seeing other World Series, that’s how it goes. At that time, I didn’t even think about it. I just kind of followed the ball. And from then on, I didn’t know what to do.”

Montero chuckled recalling the conversation.

“He said, ‘Hey man, I messed up. I messed up because I should have run at you and I didn’t,’” Montero said. “I’m like, ‘C’mon, man. At that time, we didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do, either. I said, ‘You’re good, man. What is the problem? We just won. That’s all that counts.”

Heck, Montero sort of froze himself after the final out, remaining at home plate for a good 10 seconds, holding his mask in the air. Catcher David Ross and reliever Carl Edwards Jr. finally noticed Montero and ran toward him, and together the three ran toward the celebration.

“Honestly, I don’t even know what Mike did,” Montero said. “I wasn’t even paying attention to him. I was like, ‘Oh my God. Thank God we won.’”

*****

Montgomery would have entered the game in the ninth if the Indians had put a runner on base, but Aroldis Chapman rebounded from giving up the three tying runs in the eighth to work a 1-2-3 inning — “a huge part of the game that some people overlook,” Montgomery said.

As the 10th unfolded, with the Cubs leading 8-6, Montgomery did not appear likely to pitch. Edwards got the first two outs of the inning, striking out Mike Napoli and retiring Jose Ramirez on a groundout.

Montgomery, warming again, knew he would be summoned for Martinez, a switch-hitter with a .470 career OPS against lefties. But for the Indians to even get to Martinez, two right-handed hitters, Brandon Guyer and Davis, would need to reach against the right-handed Edwards.

Guyer drew a walk, then advanced to second on defensive indifference.

Davis drove him in with a single to pull the Indians within one run, bringing Maddon out of the dugout to remove Edwards.

“I saw Joe walking out there and I knew it was me,” Montgomery said.

Warming up that inning, Montgomery said he felt almost numb — a little better, actually, than he had felt earlier. Still, he had just endured his first full regular season in the majors, and this would be his 11th appearance of the postseason. He already had pitched four times in the Series, throwing 40 pitches in Game 2, eight in Game 3, 17 in Game 4 and 17 in Game 6.

“I didn’t think I was going to pitch in Game 7,” Montgomery said. “I didn’t have my best stuff necessarily … I pretty much had nothing left after warming up for that long.

“I thought, ‘I’ve just got to throw a strike. I was kind of just focusing on understanding that I’m not going to have my best stuff and not even worrying about it. Just trying to stay with it. It’s funny — sometimes you pitch better when you’re tired.”

Teammates offered Montgomery encouragement as he prepared to enter the game, but he does not recall exactly who said what.

Jake Arrieta and John Lackey, two starting pitchers, were in the bullpen at that time. Montgomery said he felt the support of the entire group, spoken or unspoken.

“I felt like they believed in me to get it done,” Montgomery said. “That was really all I was thinking about: ‘This is it. And I’m not going to let these guys down.’

“It was do-or-die: ‘You’ve got to get one guy out. That’s all you’re being asked to do right now.’ Going out there, they gave me that confidence: ‘We believe in you at this time.’ And I was like, ‘Let’s prove ‘em right.’”

Once Montgomery reached the mound, he asked Montero what he had on Martinez, who had batted only twice in the Series — once against Chapman, once against Hector Rondon, both times with Willson Contreras catching.

Montero replied: “I don’t know, dude. Let me think about it. On my way back to the plate, I will think about it.”

Actually, Montero said, a scouting report on Martinez was the furthest thing from his mind.

“We needed one out at that point. Whatever is working in the warmups, that’s what I’m going to use, regardless,” Montero said.

“The curveball looked good in the warmups. The fastball looked good in the warmups. But we had Rajai Davis running at first. I’m not looking for this guy (Martinez) to hit a flyball.

“The flyball is my enemy right now. A flyball can be dangerous. I’m looking for this guy to put the ball on the ground. What was my better chance? He had a good enough curveball to get this guy to strike out, or get him to roll over. I was going to die with that pitch. And I called it back-to-back.”

The first curve was a called strike. The second, Montgomery said, “really wasn’t that great.” But it was good enough for Martinez to roll over, good enough for the final out.

Later, Montgomery would tell Montero, “It’s funny how you fooled me, telling me you didn’t know what you had (on Martinez). But you did know what you had.”

“No, dude, seriously,” Montero replied. “At that time, I didn’t know what we had.”

*****

The trade occurred on July 20 — Montgomery and minor-league right-hander Jordan Pries to the Cubs, first baseman Dan Vogelbach and minor-league right-hander Paul Blackburn to the Mariners.

Montgomery learned of the deal in the middle of a game, when teammate Taijuan Walker summoned him to the clubhouse and showed him a tweet on his phone that said, “Mike Montgomery is going to the Cubs.”

“I looked at him and went, ‘No way,’” Montgomery said. “He said, ‘Dude, I’m telling ya.’ Then I went to look at my phone. (Montgomery’s agent) Paul (Cohen) had called me and I had some other messages. I was like, ‘Oh boy. This is probably happening.’

“It was definitely mixed feelings. It wasn’t a sense of joy. It was almost a sense of defeat in a way: ‘Wow, Seattle didn’t really want me. They traded me away.’ It was more of that right away as opposed to understanding what it would mean to play for the Cubs.”

Montgomery, the 36th overall selection in the 2008 draft, had been traded twice before — from the Royals to the Rays in the James Shields/Wade Davis deal, and from the Rays to the Mariners for righty Erasmo Ramirez. He finally was starting to establish himself with the Mariners, liked his teammates, had just entered the rotation. And then, just like that, he had to start over again.

The magnitude of going to the Cubs hit Montgomery only after teammate Nathan Karns said, “Monty, cool, we’ll get to watch you in the postseason.” Montgomery replied that he wanted the Cubs to face the Mariners in the World Series so he would be guaranteed a ring. And as others spoke excitedly about him joining the Cubs, he warmed to the idea.

Little did Montgomery know how it would all turn out. Little did he know that he would throw the final pitch in the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, ending 108 years of misery for the Cubs and their fans.

Montgomery, who stayed in Chicago for a few days after the Series, was taken aback when people kept thanking him, not fully grasping the magnitude of what he had accomplished.

He did not know he would pitch. He did not know how to celebrate. Earlier in the night, he did not want to be part of the game at all.

“Everyone goes, ‘You finished the game. You ended Game 7.’ Yes, I think that’s a big deal. But all I had to do was get one out,” Montgomery said.

“I didn’t have time to even think about it. To me, that’s what made it beautiful. I didn’t have time to think about anything.”