Culture / Sporting Life

Wonder Rookie Jeremy Pena Isn’t the Only Major Astros Surprise — Rafael Montero Goes From Throw In to Indispensable

The Latest Houston Pitching Reclamation Project May Be the Most Impressive Yet

BY // 05.07.22

Rafael Montero arrived in Houston as almost a throw in, considered the other piece in the Kendall Graveman trade that remade the Astros bullpen last season. Then, Montero got hurt and almost became forgotten about by even devout Astros fans. He and the team avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $2,725,000 one year contract for this season, but Astros general manager James Click may have been the only one who considered it a significant deal.

Now, The Throw In is turning into Mr. Indispensable. The After Thought is a First Thought. And arguably the biggest surprise of the Astros’ first month and half not named Jeremy Pena.

Montero is doing a great Graveman impression. He just keeps coming out of the bullpen and making hitters look silly. He does it again in Houston’s second straight 3-2 win over A.J. Hinch’s staggering Detroit Tigers Friday night, setting down the heart of Detroit’s order on just 14 pitches in the ninth inning.

Montero is rapidly starting to look like one of Click’s best moves. The 31-year-old with a career 5.02 ERA just may be the Astros’ latest shining pitching reclamation project. And one of their most impressive ones. This new Montero comes with longtime Astros Pitching Yoda Brent Strom having moved on to the Arizona desert and the rebuilding Diamondbacks.

Current Astros pitching coach Josh Miller, who worked as the primary assistant pitching coach under Strom, brings a very analytical approach to the role. And Montero is certainly now relying on his best pitches more than ever.

“He’s got great changeup, great fastball,” Astros catcher Martin Maldonado says when I ask him Montero. “His fastball command is amazing. He’s not afraid to challenge the hitters and that’s the reason why he’s being successful right now.”

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Astros manager Dusty Baker has already turned to Montero for three saves, including one on Friday night with regular closer Ryan Pressly having just returned from the injured list and pitched the night before. Having a healthy Pressly, a remade Montero and Hector Neris (who did get a big two year $17 million contract in free agency) give the Astros three potentially elite late-inning options who all possess closing ability.

Rafael Montero can be a force in the back end of the Houston Astros' bullpen. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Rafael Montero can be a force in the back end of the Houston Astros’ bullpen. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Montero is throwing as well as anyone right now. He boasts a 0.73 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP, striking out 17 batters in 12 and 1/3 innings. The Throw In has played a major part in these now 16-11 Astros having found their way in an early season in which other expected contenders like the Chicago White Sox (12-13) and the Boston Red Sox (10-17 despite entering the season with a projected win total of 90) are already struggling.

“I’m happy that we’re staring to win,” outfielder Chas McCormick, who may be playing himself into a regular starting role. “We’re getting the ball rolling. This team is a really good team.”

The Astros are not piling up runs, but almost no teams seem to be scoring in bunches in this MLB deadened ball season. In game two of the Tiger series, a Jeremy Pena hustle double followed by a McCormick home run in the second inning and a Maldonado home run in the third inning that just clears the corner of the right field wall are enough.

All of the Astros run production will come from the bottom three hitters in the lineup, no small bonus.

“It’s huge,” McCormick says. “Obviously the top of our lineup is filled with a bunch of All-Stars and when those guys aren’t going, the bottom of the order has to pick it up.

“That’s why we’ve got good young players like Pena and (Jose) Siri. It’s been a good time.”

“His fastball command is amazing. He’s not afraid to challenge the hitters and that’s the reason why he’s being successful right now.” — Astros catcher Martin Maldonado on Rafael Montero

It’s been the best of times for Rafael Montero, whose four seam fastball has been unleashed with the Astros. Ten of his 14 pitches are four seamers on Friday night, which turns his changeup from a liability into a deadly weapon that should require a license to carry. Montero gets the last two outs against the Tigers on the changeup, striking out Jeimer Candelario (who terrorized Pressly the night before) on a low one and inducing Willi Castro into a weak ground out on a corner-dancing change.

Montero is showing plenty of emotion too, unleashing screams and near Tiger Woods worthy fist pumps after big inning-ending outs.

This is a pitcher who looks reborn. The Throw In is serving notice of his worth, strike after strike after strike. The biggest surprise not named Jeremy Pena is making his own early season statement for these Astros.

Watch Rafael Montero roar.

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