Junior pitcher uses knuckleball to establish identity on Hickman baseball team

Friday, April 12, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:54 p.m. CDT, Friday, April 12, 2013
Hickman baseball pitcher and second baseman Brian Montgomery surprises batters with his knuckleball pitch.

COLUMBIA – From the vantage point of a batter, Brian Montgomery couldn't be less intimidating.

At 5 feet 6 inches and 155 pounds, the Hickman junior second baseman and pitcher is one of the smallest players on the Kewpies' baseball team. His alert blue eyes don’t cast a cold gaze like a feared power pitcher might. 

Game postponed

The baseball game between Rock Bridge and Hickman scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday was postponed because of inclement field conditions and will be made up on April 23 at Hickman High School.

Hickman coach Dan Devine Jr. confirmed the change.

The game was scheduled to be played at Hickman, but Rock Bridge players swept puddles off their infield tarp Wednesday in preparation of a possible change in venue.

The Bruins (9-3) are back in action Tuesday against Smith-Cotton in Sedalia.

The Kewpies (7-3) are scheduled to play April 12 against Francis Howell in St. Charles.

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In fact, Montgomery is known among his teammates for his giggly, fun-loving nature, constantly laughing and smiling. On occasion last year, he would even laugh while pitching during games. 

But Montgomery’s signature pitch — his knuckleball — still makes batters dread facing him. 

Sophomore Sami Baugher: “That pitch is nasty.”

Junior Daniel Foley, on trying to hit the pitch: “It sucks.”

For the pitch, Montgomery grips the seams of the ball with either two or three neatly trimmed fingernails. He then – and here's the key with the pitch – just throws it, like he’s playing catch. 

The absence of strain on the shoulder or elbow that would come from throwing a normal hard fastball or breaking ball has allowed many Major League knuckleballers to have particularly long careers.

Batters see what looks like a straight pitch that isn’t even fast coming out of Montgomery's hands. But what distinguishes the knuckleball is its lack of spin. It looks stationary, the seams of the ball distinguishable.

The fact that the ball isn’t spinning makes the air move differently around it, causing the knuckleball to have a very unpredictable fluttering, shaky movement and making it a notoriously difficult pitch for catchers, as well as hitters, to handle. 

The first time Hickman sophomore catcher Marshall Willinghman worked with Montgomery was proof of that.

“You know, I thought, ‘Well, I’ve never seen a knuckleball before,’ but he went out and threw it and my glove was about four inches higher than the ball,” Willingham said. “And it just kind of went down and hit me right in the thighs, and it didn’t feel too good.” 

The faster version of Montgomery’s knuckleball, which he learned from watching Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey has a little blip of movement to get it into the strike zone.  

But the slower one, with its tumbling rotation, has a more defined movement to it. 

“It flutters, and usually when he throws it real good, it’ll get right here and the bottom will kind of drop out. It’ll just drop straight down,” Hickman pitching coach Terry Whitney said.

That break sometimes comes late in the pitch’s flight, sometimes after the batter has started his swing. 

“Yeah, you start your swing and then it just drops, and you don’t know where to swing,” senior infielder Cory Riley said. “You look ridiculous.”

If the ball’s path is difficult for hitters and catchers to predict, the same is true for Montgomery himself. He can locate the faster knuckler in a general direction, but for the slow one, he just aims for the middle and throws. 

“Just hope it lands in the strike zone,” he said. 

The knuckleball is a well-known pitch in baseball. Tim Wakefield won two World Series with the Boston Red Sox while throwing the pitch. A few knuckleballers, including Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro, are in the Hall of Fame. 

It is hard to say why there aren't more knuckleballers, given the success it can bring. Dickey, for example, won the 2012 N.L. Cy Young Award with his faster version of the pitch. Why isn’t the pitch used as much as a slider or curveball, or even a fastball?

One reason could be the all-or-nothing aspect of the pitch. 

"If it doesn't knuckle, it's just going to sit there like a, just a slow change-up," Hickman assistant coach Matt Baurichter said. "And it's easier to pick up than a change-up, because it doesn't have any spin on it."

Baurichter, who threw the pitch as a secondary offspeed offering in the late 1990s at Rock Bridge, thinks the fact that the knuckleball is seldom taught to players is one reason for its scarcity. 

“A lot of people just can’t get the release,” Baurichter said. “They want to, like, shot-put it or something, but really, I could throw with my same fastball motion, so I think that’s where it became effective.” 

Whatever Montgomery does with the pitch, it works for him, enough to throw it as his primary weapon. He found the pitch early last season. Montgomery remembers playing catch with former teammate Adam Allee during practice and letting one loose.

“The first time I threw it, he didn’t know what pitch I even threw," Montgomery said. "He was asking what was that and completely missed it. It was funny.”

Word soon got around to Whitney, and about a month after he found the pitch, Montgomery was on the mound working on pitching mechanics. He eventually got some innings for the freshman and sophomore team.

When Montgomery threw it in game situations, sometimes laughter was the only response. The slightly comical appearance of the pitch’s slow arc combined with sheer disbelief at seeing it sometimes caused both dugouts – and Montgomery – to start laughing.   

Montgomery pitched against St. John Vianney High School for the junior varsity team early this season and could eventually see work out of the bullpen for the varsity team.

But the margin for error at the varsity level is much less. Hitters freely jump on pitches left in the middle of the plate, even from team aces. Imagine what could happen to a knuckleballer who, on a bad day, is strapped with a pitch that has absolutely nothing going for it, not even velocity.

However, Montgomery is able to control his fastball well, offsetting difficulties he might have with the knuckleball. 

“Brian’s such a good pitcher that even when he’s having a bad day, he can control his pitches to the point of where it looks like he’s still pitching (like) a good pitcher,” Willingham said. 

Montgomery says he is not afraid to go out and rely on a pitch he can barely control.

“I’m not nervous,” he said. “I just got to get up there and throw it, see how it works.”

During one practice, Montgomery was throwing in the bullpen with a batter standing in the box. He wound up and threw a slow knuckler, which came out of his hand innocuously but then tumbled like it was shot out of the air, tumbled all the way until it almost nailed the batter in the back of his leg. Montgomery and his teammates reacted in what seemed like the only appropriate way. 

They laughed.

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