ST. LOUIS – Two budding postseason stars have intriguing connections with the St. Louis Cardinals.
One was taking the mound in a Cardinals uniform just a few short months ago. Another was once sought before a trade deadline several years ago, though a stint with St. Louis never materialized.
This October’s aces? None other than Jordan Montgomery and Zack Wheeler. Both have a pair of quality starts this postseason and rank only behind Nathan Eovaldi in innings covered this postseason.
Montgomery shined against the defending World Series-champion Houston Astros in Sunday’s ALCS opener, firing 6.1 shutout innings and striking out six. Nearly two weeks earlier, he set the tone for a currently-undefeated Rangers run, going seven scoreless innings against the Tampa Bay Rays in the Wild Card round. Montgomery also managed to cover four innings and keep the Rangers within striking distance against the AL-top seed Baltimore Orioles.
Texas now leads the ALCS, two games to none, over Houston and could clinch a World Series berth at home in a matter of days. Montgomery, if needed, could pitch as soon as Game 5 on Friday.
In the National League, Wheeler is one of few pitchers to make a start in each of the three postseason rounds up to this point, and he’s delivered quality starts in all three outings. His toughest assignment came on Oct. 9 against the NL-top seed Atlanta Braves, where he contained a dynamic offense to two runs over 6.1 innings until some late bullpen misfortunes.
Still, the Phillies pulled an upset to advance to their second consecutive NLCS. And Wheeler set the tone nicely for Game 1 on Monday, firing six strong innings of two-run ball, striking out eight, and once retiring 15 hitters in a row.
So how did Montgomery and Wheeler get to their current spots of stardom? The Cardinals arguably played key roles in both surges.
Montgomery joined St. Louis in a deadline buzzer-beater for outfielder Harrison Bader in early August 2022. In essentially a full year’s workload from the Cardinals, Montgomery went 12-12 with a 3.31 ERA and 169 strikeouts over 32 starts. Pretty solid numbers, especially given the Cardinals’ drastic decline in wins between the 2022 and 2023 campaign and that Montgomery pitched more on the latter end of that.
The Cardinals traded Montgomery and Chris Stratton to the Texas Rangers on July 30 for a return of three players, headlined by infield prospect and eventual Texas League MVP Thomas Saggese. In the early going, the trade has proven to be a win-win for both parties involved.
The Cardinals gained depth from an expiring contract. Montgomery has taken his game to another level with the Rangers (2.65 ERA over 85 innings since the trade), and he’s delivered in several key outings down the stretch.
Montgomery credits his pitching coach, Mike Maddux, for his progression with Texas. Maddux spent several years in the Cardinals organization through the 2022 season, but stepped down ahead of the 2023 campaign and took the job with Texas. He’s reunited with Montgomery and found a way to build upon his strengths.
“I got off to a hot start with him in St. Louis, and then got to work with him more here,” said Montgomery via FOX Sports after Sunday’s win. “He’s such a good guy, great pitching coach. Set me down, and told me he believed in my stuff and that I needed to throw my heater more. I’m a big lefty that throws pretty hard, so I need to throw it more.”
Wheeler’s connection to the Cardinals is a bit more complicated. It’s good to preface it by noting that his postseason success is no surprise. After several years with the New York Mets, Wheeler made his first Phillies postseason start last year against the Cardinals in the Wild Card round and it served as an appetizer of his October success since then. He threw 6.1 scoreless innings, and though he ended up with a no-decsion, Philadelphia stunned St. Louis with a late ninth-inning comeback that ignited a run to the World Series.
The 2022 season was the last of four consecutive years that the Cardinals made postseason, a run that began in 2019. That year, St. Louis reportedly had interest in adding Wheeler ahead of the trade deadline.
According to Mark Saxon, formerly of The Athletic, the Cardinals “did engage on Zack Wheeler” before the 2019 trade deadline when he was with the Mets and a pending free agent. The Mets reportedly asked for one of Tyler O’Neill or Harrison Bader in the deal. With both O’Neill and Bader younger outfielders and more involved in the Cardinals’ future plans at the time, St. Louis never pulled the trigger to acquire Wheeler.
A trade might have taken more than just O’Neill or Bader, but it’s believed either one would have been a piece to move a deal forward. In the hypothetical case that happened, the Cardinals would’ve also been tasked with making a decision after the 2019 season on whether to sign Wheeler to a long-term deal, likely the richest for a pitcher in team history.
The Cardinals clinched the NL Central on the final day of the 2019 season and eventually made it to the NLCS, but didn’t win a game past the first round.
As for Wheeler, he finished as the NL Cy Young runner-up in 2021 and is battling for his second straight trip to the World Series.
“I really don’t have an answer for you to be honest,” said Wheeler after Monday’s win, per PhilliesNation.com. “I just try and step up my game, but staying who I am at the same time and not overdoing it and getting out of myself.”
It will be interesting to see if Wheeler’s teammate and another All-Star innings eater in Aaron Nola becomes available this fall. The Cardinals have reportedly expressed interest in the pending free agent Nola, though recent comments make it seem he’s committed to Philadelphia if new contract terms make sense.
Wheeler, at 34 years old, has one more year remaining on his current contract with the Phillies.
Montgomery, at 30 years old, will also become a free agent after this postseason unless the Rangers offer a new deal. Perhaps the Cardinals could entertain a reunion, but given Montgomery’s latest success, it won’t come cheap.