Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion Oilers starter Justin Montgomery pitches against the Anchorage Bucs on Wednesday at Coral Seymour Memorial Park in Kenai.

Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion Oilers starter Justin Montgomery pitches against the Anchorage Bucs on Wednesday at Coral Seymour Memorial Park in Kenai.

On the rise: Oilers starter Montgomery hits his stride in Alaska

Earlier this summer, Peninsula Oilers pitcher Justin Montgomery tackled Skyline Trail, climbing about 2,700 feet in two miles to a commanding view of the central Kenai Peninsula that he said he will never forget.

Since coming to Alaska to play for the Oilers, Montgomery’s baseball career has been on a similar ascent.

The 6-foot-5, 195-pound right-hander is 3-2 with a 3.38 ERA in Alaska Baseball League play for the Oilers, leading the team with 42 2/3 innings pitched.

His signature start came July 10 against the league-leading Mat-Su Miners, when he was just one out away from a no-hitter.

Montgomery also earned a start in the Alaska Baseball League All-Star Game, where he pitched a scoreless inning while fanning two.

Such a performance in one of the top collegiate summer leagues in the country would be impressive for any college player, but Montgomery’s past makes it startling.

The host son of Dan and Kathy Gensel said that he didn’t get much varsity starting time until his senior year of high school, when he made seven or eight starts for Norco High in Norco, California.

The son of Steve and Pam Montgomery said that the only school that really recruited him coming out of high school was Cal Baptist, where he was a modest 2-1 with a 4.58 ERA in 17 2-3 innings pitched as a freshman this past season.

“He didn’t get recruited out of high school, and now there are a lot of scouts asking about him,” Oilers head coach Brian Daly said. “The sky is the limit for him.”

Daly said he had no idea what role Montgomery would play for the Oilers this season, but an exhibition start convinced the coach that Montgomery should be a starter.

“Now, he’s probably our No. 1 guy,” Daly said.

Daly said Montgomery has blossomed because his maturing physical tools are starting to mesh with determination and dedication.

“His work ethic is probably the best on the team,” Daly said. “When you ask him to do something, he does it, and he’ll probably do more than you ask.”

For example, Daly said that Montgomery has improved his slider by keeping his weight back more. The coach added that by improving the slider, the fastball and change-up have become more effective.

“He’s only going to keep getting better,” Daly said. “He’s young and he doesn’t have a lot of innings.”

The coach said Montgomery’s lack of innings in high school could turn out to be a plus. Instead of developing bad habits, he’s now increasing his workload under the eye of more qualified coaches.

The coach said Montgomery sits at 89 or 90 mph now, but as he matures and adds muscle to his smooth delivery, the velocity will be amped up.

“It’s not a herky-jerky delivery,” Daly said. “It’s what we call a quiet delivery, and that’s what scouts look for at the next level.

“He’ll get better as long as he puts the work in, and you know a kid like him is going to put the work in.”

In a certain sense, Montgomery already has.

“I just like to be as good as I can be at everything I do,” he said.

A look at Montgomery’s academics bear that out. At Cal Baptist, he chose mechanical engineering. It’s a tough major, but one in which Montgomery said the job prospects are great. He then earned all A’s and B’s in his freshman year of college.

That same assiduousness jump-started Montgomery’s baseball career.

He is a late bloomer, having grown from about 6-0 as a sophomore to 6-4 as a junior. That left him on the sidelines his junior year with injury as he adjusted to his body.

“I grew into my body,” Montgomery said. “I figured it out.

“I did a lot of work because I really wanted to catch up to people who were better than me.”

Even so, Montgomery’s thin high school resume did not have colleges flooding to Norco.

The college that did come calling will be no surprise to students of Oilers history. Cal Baptist’s head coach is Gary Adcock, who won at a .676 clip as Oilers head coach in 1999 and 2000 to post the top winning percentage in the club’s history.

Adcock has gone on to more success at Cal Baptist, with a 437-218-1 record in 12 seasons.

Montgomery was the discovery of one of Adcock’s assistants.

Adcock wrote in an email that Montgomery was raw but had traits similar to the five starting pitchers in the last three years from Cal Baptist that have gone in the Major League Baseball draft.

“Some of those common characteristics being size, hand speed, desire to be good and an ultra-competitor on the mound,” Adcock wrote.

According to Adcock, Montgomery was the No. 4 starter heading into spring ball, but was moved to the bullpen when the season started with three-game series.

Just when Montgomery was ready to go into a starter’s role, an oblique injury cost him a few weeks and kept him in the bullpen.

Oilers outfielder Brian Ruhm, who will be a redshirt senior at Cal Baptist, said Montgomery had a typical transition to college.

“It’s like that with most college freshmen — it happened to me,” he said. “There’s just a lot of nerves going to a new school and a new level of baseball.

“Then you relax and you realize you’re there to have fun and play the game you’ve grown up playing.”

Ruhm said he always knew Montgomery had the stuff to be good. This summer, Ruhm said he just wanted to make sure Montgomery was enjoying himself, and success was sure to follow.

Mission accomplished.

“There’s not as much pressure up here,” Montgomery said. “I’ve been having fun up here. It’s really just me being me.”

This has Adcock and Ruhm excited about what next season could bring.

“Next year Justin will compete to be one of the top four guys in our rotation if not our league,” Adcock wrote. “We pride ourselves in our pitching and I don’t see any reason Justin can’t be one of our future leaders.

“He has the projection and upside and once he learns to be a little less cerebral and more attack based in his mind-set it will all come together.”

Adcock is set to reap the benefits that he once provided as a pitching guru for the Oilers in his two years as assistant and additional two as head coach.

“The opportunity afforded to him by the Oilers is invaluable,” Adcock wrote. “To play with an organization with top coaches, administration, host families, in the wonderful community of Kenai and the surrounding Peninsula is appreciated.

“Ultimately guys come back better, making by job easier!”

As for Montgomery, the near no-hitter against the Miners gives a good idea of where his mind is at.

He would love a future in baseball, but he also fully intends to keep up with his mechanical engineering studies in case baseball doesn’t work out.

In other words, he’s not about to get too excited about the future and stop focusing on the present.

“In that game, I kept telling myself, ‘Just get the three guys in order,’” he said. “In the last inning, that’s what I kept telling myself.

“That’s all I really ever focus on — getting three guys in order every inning.”

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