OAKLAND — Though Frankie Montas has earned the “ace” title through his longevity, the spotlight on the A’s pitching staff early on this season has been ceded to the surprising dominance of fellow rotation mate Paul Blackburn.
On Sunday, though, Montas provided a reminder of the filth that he also brings. Shaking off a poorly located sinker that Shohei Ohtani crushed for a two-run homer in the first, he turned in his most dominant performance yet this season in a 4-1 loss to the Angels. The right-hander allowed just two runs on four hits and one intentional walk, racking up a season-high strikeout total of 12 that fell one short of his career-best mark.
Montas’ splitter has garnered rave reviews around the league, and for good reason. Entering Sunday’s contest, opposing batters were just 5-for-54 (.093) with 17 strikeouts against his split, one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball.
The deceptive offering often entices hitters by staying in the strike zone before dropping straight down at the last minute. It certainly proved too good to pass up for the Angels, who saw the pitch 24 times from Montas and swung at 15, with seven whiffs (swings-and-misses).
“It’s one of the better split-finger fastballs in the game right now,” said A’s manager Mark Kotsay. “I faced some good splits in the past. Curt Schilling comes to mind right away. John Smoltz and some others. From our vantage point in the dugout, it gets to the hitting zone and just falls down.”
The splitter is superb, but it’s only half of what makes Montas so devastating. Another weapon just as effective is his fastball, which on Sunday was used as the putaway pitch on seven of his strikeouts as it maxed out at 98.3 mph and also generated seven whiffs. In total, Montas’ 22 whiffs on the day matched the second-most he’s ever recorded over a single start.
“Usually, I feel like guys are thinking about my splitter and how not to get to it,” Montas said. “But they forget my fastball is not that bad, either. It’s tougher for hitters when you have to worry about two plus pitches.”
This kind of outing has become common for Montas over the past couple of years, which is why it’s a bit perplexing that he doesn’t generate the same buzz as other pitchers who are considered to be at the top of the sport. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t pitch for a high-profile club. Whatever the case, the numbers speak for themselves.
Following Sunday’s gem, Montas leads the American League in innings pitched (49), ranks fourth in strikeouts (53) and ninth in opponents’ batting average (.201). His dominance also continues to propel him among a group of some of the most talented pitchers to ever pitch for the organization as Sunday marked his eighth career 10-strikeout game, tying Dave Stewart for the fourth-most such games in Oakland history.
The next three pitchers on that list? Catfish Hunter (9), Barry Zito (11) and Vida Blue (21).
“Their guy is as good as it gets,” said Angels manager Joe Maddon. “Montas is that good. Our guy [Patrick Sandoval] was as good, and we were able to stay with them.”
With his solid 3.67 ERA, Montas still has some work to do in order to catch up to Blackburn, whose 1.67 ERA is fourth-lowest in the AL. Ultimately, the two starters are pushing each other to get better, though. In fact, Montas might actually be Blackburn’s biggest fan, often standing behind Blackburn’s postgame media scrums and playfully whispering words of encouragement in his ear.
“I don’t see it as a competition,” Montas said. “I’m really happy he’s dealing. He finally got his shot and he’s taking full advantage of that. I’m happy for him. He’s a great pitcher. Everybody knows that he has great stuff. For him, he’s getting an opportunity to show what he can do.”
On the offensive side of things, the A’s would like to reward these two top-notch pitchers more than they have to this point. Collecting just five hits against Sandoval and the Angels bullpen on Sunday, Oakland went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position and left 10 men on base, lowering its AL-worst team batting average to .200.
“It feels like a bit of a broken record when your pitchers go out there and dominate and we can’t muster up runs for a win,” second baseman Tony Kemp said. “It’s tough for an offense. We just have to continue to keep confident. It’s not easy, but you can’t let today’s game factor into tomorrow.”