Friday, April 29, 2016

Cups of Coffee: Rafael Montalvo

This is the fifth in a series of posts about Astros players in franchise history who played in one career Major League game. The first post was the sad tale of Jay Dahl, then the sort-of-awesome tale of John Paciorek, then the wholly unique tale of Larry Yount. Today we take a look at pitcher Rafael Montalvo.

Rafael Edgardo Montalvo was born on March 31, 1964 in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. He left the 10th grade to sign a minor-league contract with the Dodgers as a 16-year old (leaving high school was a decision he would later regret), Montalvo found himself in the Dodgers' organization playing in Rookie ball against opponents who were, on average, four years older than he. In 31IP for the Pioneer League's Lethbridge Dodgers in Lethbridge, Alberta, he would go 4-2, allowing 37H/17ER, with 18K:16BB. Incidentally, the 1980 Lethbridge Dodgers would go 52-18.

Given his youth and middling success, Montalvo spent the 1981 season repeating in Lethbridge, and struggled even more. He threw only 20IP, posting a 5.40 ERA/2.05 WHIP, with 11K:13BB as a 17-year old. The Dodgers promoted him to the A-ball Lodi of the California League, anyway, and he rewarded them in 1982 with a 3.44 ERA/1.43 WHIP. The walks were a concern (38K:33BB in 70.2IP), but he was able to pitch out of jams. 

He spent 1983 in the Florida League's Vero Beach, where he had the best season of his career: 75.1IP, 61H/13ER, 55K:31BB - a 1.55 ERA/1.22 WHIP. This got him a promotion - at 20 - to Double-A San Antonio, and when he put up a 1.99 ERA/1.28 WHIP in 20 games, he was promoted to Triple-A Albuquerque. In 63.1IP he put up a 4.41 ERA/1.78 WHIP. Still, he was in his Age 20 season.

1985 saw Montalvo back in Albuquerque, where he went 2-7 with 13 saves and a 4.20 ERA. But the Astros thought enough of him that, on July 10, the Dodgers traded him and minor-leaguer German Rivera to the Astros for Enos Cabell, a south Los Angeles native. When he got traded to the Astros, Albuquerque was playing Tucson at home, so Montalvo just moved his gear from the home clubhouse to the visitors clubhouse. Montalvo spent the rest of the 1985 season in Triple-A Tucson, going 1-2 with four saves and a 5.35 ERA in 22 appearances. 

1985 was Enos Cabell's 14th year in the majors, and he would retire from baseball the following year. At the time he was traded, Cabell - a lifetime .277/.308/.370 hitter - was hitting .245/.321/.357 in 60 games at 1B. Having spent a lot of his career at Third Base, however, made him attractive to the Dodgers, who needed help. The Dodgers optioned 1B Sid Bream to Triple-A to make room for Cabell.

While Enos Cabell would hit .292/.340/.349 for the Dodgers over the rest of 1985, but Cabell's real headline of that 1985 summer was that he was one of 22 players involved in the Pittsburgh Drug Trials. Cabell testified that he had used cocaine "off and on" from 1978 to 1984, (he played with the Astros from 1975-1980, and 1984) along with many of his Astros and Giants teammates (including J.R. Richard) and that, while on cocaine, "I usually got two or three hits...I always peformed well." One Dodgers player said that he had bought cocaine from Cabell

Cabell was among the players who received the harshest penalty for - as commissioner Peter Ueberroth said, was "a prolonged pattern of drug use...and in some fashion facilitated the distribution of drugs in baseball." Cabell was then subjected to random drug testing and could choose to either be suspended for the 1986 season, or lose 10% of his 1986 salary ($45,000) and perform 100 hours of community service to a drug-related program. Cabell hit .256/.294/.318 in 107 games for LA in 1986, the final year of his 15-year career.

Despite Montalvo's minor-league numbers, the Astros saw the movement on Montalvo's sinkers and sliders and projected him for a middle relief role on the 1986 team. In Spring Training 1986, Houston manager Hal Lanier noted that Montalvo's pitches "have a lot of movement."

The 1986 Astros opened the season with six games in the Astrodome, after dropping the first two games of the season to the Giants, the Astros rattled off three straight and were facing the Braves to try to complete the sweep on Sunday, April 13.

Mike Scott was making his 2nd start of the season. In G2 of the 1986 season, Scott gave up 8H/3ER, 4K:1BB in 5IP to the Giants, a game in which the Astros lost 4-1. Scott was facing the Braves' Joe Johnson, who would record 13 of his 20 career wins in 1986.

The two pitchers traded perfect half-innings in the 1st but Scott faltered in the 2nd, allowing a single, steal, and a walk before an Ken Oberkfell single plated the first Braves' run. Johnson mowed down the Astros with three groundouts in the bottom of the 2nd. Scott responded with a flyball, strikeout, groundout in the top of the 3rd. Johnson got Bailey, Hatcher, and Scott to remain perfect through three innings. Again Scott stumbled in the top of the 4th: two singles to open the inning were followed by a Billy Sample home run. Two errors resulted in another Braves run before catcher Mark Bailey threw out leadoff hitter Omar Moreno to end the inning. The Braves were up 5-0 in the middle of the 4th.

The Astros got one back when a passed ball scored Bill Doran, who had singled to open the bottom of the 4th inning to make it 5-1. In the top of the 6th, Chris Chambliss and Billy Sample singled to open the inning, chasing Scott from the game in favor of reliever Mike Madden. A sac fly from Oberkfell made it 6-1 and Madden pitched around a single and a walk to at least limit the damage. The Astros got two runs back in the bottom of the 6th to make it 6-3 Braves.

Madden ran back out for the 7th and got two quick outs before three straight singles scored another Braves run, the inning only ending because Billy Sample was thrown out at home on a relay from Kevin Bass to Mike Madden to Mark Bailey. Alan Ashby pinch-hit for Madden and flew out to left, but a Phil Garner triple brought in two runs to make it 7-5 Braves.

Coming out of the bullpen for the 7th inning, in his first major league appearance was reliever Rafael Montalvo. He got Glenn Hubbard to pop up, got Ozzie Virgil to fly out to left. Omar Moreno hit a two-out triple, but Rafael Ramirez grounded out to Montalvo to end the inning, stranding Moreno on 3rd.

Kevin Bass, Dickie Thon, and Mark Bailey were all retired in order, and Montalvo went back to work for the top of the 9th, trying to hold the Braves' lead at 7-5. He walked Dale Murphy to lead off the inning, and then walked pinch-hitter Bob Horner. That was all Hal Lanier needed to see, and Frank DiPino was called in to replace Montalvo. Murphy later scored on a Ken Oberkfell single, which was charged to Montalvo, and Bob Horner was thrown out at home on a rope from left fielder Eric Bullock. It was 8-5 Braves.

A Phil Garner single off future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter plated Craig Reynolds and Bill Doran to make it 8-7 Braves, but Glenn Davis grounded into a double play to end the game and sealing the Atlanta win.

Montalvo never appeared in a Major-League game again. Following that one appearance (1IP, 1H/1ER, 0K:2BB) Montalvo was sent back to Tucson, where he posted a 3.86 ERA in 77IP. He would pitch in Tucson through the 1988 season. He missed 1989, but put up a 2.74 ERA for the California Angels' Triple-A team in Edmonton in 1990. Montalvo bounced between Double-A and Triple-A in 1991, with a disappointing 6.00 ERA/1.85 WHIP.

The Astros, though starting 3-3, would win 11 of their next 14 games, ending April with a 14-6 record and setting the tone for the team that would eventually lose to the 1986 Mets in one of the most classic playoff series in franchise history.

After a 3-year hiatus from baseball, Montalvo made his way back to the Dodgers for 1995 Spring training, 15 years after making his professional debut. The reason? The 1994 Players' Strike had extended into 1995, and baseball teams were using replacement players to fill out their Spring Training rosters. Montalvo was one of 40 players who volunteered to cross the picket line and play. Montalvo pitched the Dodgers' Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees' Frank Eufemia, who had only ever played for the 1985 Twins.

Even though that Grapefruit League opener had a police escort to protect the players against possible violence from irate fans, Montalvo wasn't worried:

I've been through some scary situations in Mexico, but I don't think the people in this country will throw rocks or bottles. Police will be there to protect us, anyway.

Montalvo made a guaranteed $7,000 per month plus a $5,000 signing bonus and $3,000 in meal money, the standard Dodgers guarantee for Triple-A players. And that's where Montalvo spent his 1995 season: Albuquerque. He put up a career-best 2.65 ERA in 98.1IP.

And that was it for Rafael Montalvo until 1999, when at Age 35 he pitched for the Independent League Atlantic City Surf, which also included Ruben Sierra and Rey Quinones.

After that 1999 season, Montalvo joined the Rays organization as a minor-league coach. From 2002-2004, Montalvo was the pitching coach for the Hudson Valley Renegades of the New York-Penn League, and he rejoined the team from 2007-09. The 2004 Renegades pitching staff - under Montalvo - had the second-lowest team ERA in all of minor-league baseball.

Montalvo now lives in Qatar with his wife.