At one point during Monday’s 8-5 victory over Salt Lake after the scoreboard flashed “97,” manager Wally Backman turned to his pitching coach Frank Viola in disbelief.
“I asked Frankie, I said “Is that gun right?” Backman said. “He said ‘Yeah.’”
Starter Rafael Montero touched 97 once and hit 96 a few more times on Monday at Smith’s Ballpark, picking up his first win since May 9.
Backman said Montero was getting all the way up to 96 into the seventh inning — the last in his start.
“The velocity I’ve always thought was an issue for him and maybe he’s just finally getting it back,” Backman said. “For me, Raffi’s still a big prospect. I know he hasn’t pitched real well this season but to show 96, 97 tonight puts him right back on the watch list.”
In Montero’s last start, he gave up a season-high nine runs and lasted just 3 2/3 innings in his shortest outing of the season.
Backman said he touched 94 but was mostly pitching around 91. Monday, he said Montero looked comfortable on the mound.
“Sometimes it just takes a little time because I mean this kid, he was really special before and I still think he can be that guy,” Backman said. “For me, he’s not one to forget about.”
Montero pitched 6 2/3 innings in his second longest start of the season and gave up four runs in the effort.
Salt Lake jumped out to a lead in the first inning on a Ji-Man Choi home run but the 51s came right back, scoring three runs in the next two innings on a Nevin Ashley single, Niuman Romero sacrifice fly and Travis Taijeron single.
That lead was short-lived, though, as the Bees tied it with two more in the third off Montero. Montero held them scoreless for the next two innings before a Kaleb Cowart single gave Salt Lake its second lead of the night.
But as they’ve done often, the 51s battled back, scoring four runs immediately after in the seventh on an Eric Campbell single and Johnny Monell three-run home run which provided the dagger in the victory.
Monday marked the third straight game the 51s scored eight runs and it was the third straight game that a three-run home run sealed their fate.
“Our offense has been really good the last three nights,” Backman said. “Its been getting big hits when we needed big hits. Like tonight, being able to get a lead, give up a lead, come back and get the lead again, I always use the word character, but it shows something about the team.”
Betsy Helfand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @BetsyHelfand