At age 31, Eric Montoya is the elder statesman on the club, once again. But the fact that most of his Edinburg Roadrunner teammates are in their early 20s doesn’t bother him. No wheelchair or cane yet for this bulldog of a right-hander.
“I mean, look at guys like Maddux and Jamie Moyer,” said Montoya before Saturday’s home game against Laredo. “It’s incredible that they can still go out there in their 40s and get it done, in the big leagues. But they do.”
Greg Maddux was perhaps the generation’s best pitcher, an iron man who won 355 games before retiring last year at age 42, while Moyer is still active at 46, and is 4-5 for the Phillies, having recently captured his 250th lifetime contest.
Neither of those guys has been known for throwing very hard, instead relying on changing speeds and hitting spots to be successful. And these days Montoya is a similar animal. A hard thrower who has won 62 games and lost just 23 since 2000, he has transitioned into more of a cerebral pitcher as various injuries and the ravages of time have taken their toll. And he says that’s just fine with him.
“Last year was the turning point,” explained the Corpus Christi native who tossed for The University of Texas-San Antonio. “I came in to camp with some problems and they just got worse, so I was forced to do more thinking out there. I feel like it made me a better all-around pitcher.”
He was among the Coyotes’ most consistent pitchers last year, winning 10 games for the fourth time in a career that began at Canton in the Frontier League in 2000. He became craftier about his approach to each start and this year, his first outing for the Roadrunners was more of the same.
“I came out and tested each pitch I have, it was like, ‘OK, that works, that doesn’t,’” said Montoya, known for his intensity and competitiveness on the mound. “I was able to hump it up a few times when I needed to, but for the most part I was just hitting spots, anticipating where I needed to throw, and it worked out well.”
In a 10-2 Runner win over the Broncos Friday night, he went six innings and allowed just two unearned runs, striking out five to get the win.
“I was hitting about 85 a few times, which was a lot better than the beginning of last year,” he noted. “I went slider-curve, slider-curve in the early innings, and when I knew I could let some fly, I started throwing some hard fastballs. It was a real learning experience out there, and the best part is, I didn’t feel much pain in my elbow or arm.”
Dealing with injuries the past few years has enabled Montoya to experiment with a number of offspeed pitches, and he is now adept at throwing tailing and/or cut fastballs, which confuse the hitter, who imagines that a straight fastball is coming.
“You don’t change your delivery,” he said. “You make it look the same, and then you flip the ball a certain way at the last minute. Doing things like that allows a pitcher to conserve energy, because if you’re out there throwing as hard as you can every pitch, you will wear out. I don’t care how young you are, you are going to tire that way.”
As a hurler who has struck out 658 batters in 734 lifetime innings, Montoya can still bring the heat when he needs it. But he has also evolved in all aspects of the game.
“Like I said, getting hurt was the best thing that could have happened ironically,” he reiterated. “It showed me that I had more work to do as far as learning how to pitch.”
NOTES: The Roadrunners began the 2009 season in fine fashion, sweeping the Broncos four straight before heading out on a long road trip. They return to Edinburg Baseball Stadium June 28 to start an eight-game stand against San Angelo and Harlingen. Bryon Smith, Osiel Flores and Andre Hereaud all homered for the team in Sunday’s 14-8 win, as the Runners put 42 runs on the board to start the year.