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Jerry Sullivan: Yankee bombs fly and a kid hurler emerges

TORONTO -- One of the great things about baseball is its infinite ability to surprise. You can follow it closely for half a century and see thousands of games, but every time you show up at the park you see something new.

On Saturday afternoon, the Yankees were leading the Jays, 3-0, in the top of the eighth when history occurred in the Rogers Centre. The Bronx Bombers lived up to their nickname, hitting four homers and making poor Jason Grilli the first Jays reliever ever to allow four bombs in an inning.

Brett Gardner started it off. Two outs later, Matt Holliday, Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius went deep in succession. Mercifully, John Gibbons took out Grilli before the Yanks could grill him for a fifth. Well, at least he can tell his grandkids that in-between homers, he struck out Aaron Judge.

The Yanks won, 7-0, and retained their lead atop the AL East. It was a happy, sunny day in Canada, with the dome open. But amid the long-ball clamor, the most significant event was the performance of a rookie starting pitcher.

"We swung the bats and had a lot of fun," said Gardner, 33, now in his 10th season and the longest-serving Yank. "But the best part for me was Jordan Montgomery. I thought he looked really, really good. That's a good offense, a really good lineup that he navigated through over there."

Montgomery, 24, had his best outing as a Yankee, tossing six shutout innings against a Jays offense that had been surging of late. The 6-foot-6 lefty allowed three hits, two to light-hitting catcher Luke Maile. The heart of the order (Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak) did nothing.

Home runs are flying out of MLB parks at record rates this season. Slugging is good for the highlight shows. But slugging teams are often held back by spotty starting pitching. Ask any veteran Red Sox fan. When a kid has a game like this, it resonates louder than any tape-measure home run.

Montgomery lowered his ERA -- which had climbed to 4.81 just two weeks earlier -- to a respectable 3.67. If he can pitch that way over the next four months, the Yankees have a good chance to be playing in October.

The Yanks are 32-21, ahead of schedule in the eyes of the baseball cognoscenti. But no one expected Judge to be leading all of baseball in slugging, or Aaron Hicks, a bust in Minnesota, to become one of the best hitters in the league. Add a young stalwart to the starting rotation and we're really talking.

The kid knows how to pitch, that's fairly evident. Montgomery complements a low-90s fastball with a good curveball and baffling assortment of off-speed stuff. He struggled early Saturday, giving up some hard-hit outs and walking two men in the third. But he made big pitches when he needed them.

"The curve was my best pitch today," Montgomery said. "I got it for strikes and expanded the zone a little bit and got them to swing over it. It gave them something else to look for. I was trying to be as close to the zone as I could and keep attacking."

Montgomery's nickname is "Gumby." He was a bit of a klutz in college at South Carolina. He's also known for pounding the strike zone. He's made 10 starts and progressed rapidly. He leads all MLB rookies with 53 strikeouts. In his last five starts, he has walked only eight batters and fanned 27.

That's impressive command for a rookie. Imagine how giddy for Yankee fans to contemplate that they could have the Rookie of the Year (Judge) and the AL's top rookie pitcher (Montgomery) on the roster.

"We've got a long ways to go," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, downplaying any talk of personal achievements. "Just keep playing the way that you're playing, keep learning on the job and contributing. That's all we want."

Veteran Yankee media say this is one of the best groups in years, a more engaging and friendly bunch than earlier Girardi teams. The old guys, Gardner and Matt Holliday, set the tone by goofing on each other. Judge is remarkably humble and grounded for a man of his prodigious talents. C.C. Sabathia, one of two players who go back to the last Series title in 2009 (Gardner is the other), is a sage advisor to Montgomery.

Montgomery prides himself on his calm, even demeanor. It's hard to tell whether he's pitched shutout ball or gotten shelled. He said the bustle and media frenzy of New York isn't an issue.

"I deleted Twitter a long time ago," he said. How does it feel to be wiser than the President, he was asked?

"See, stuff like that, it gets out of hands sometimes," he said. "You get caught up in media too much and start thinking too much. I'm just trying to play for this team and not anybody else."

During the game, Twitter comparisons were made between Montgomery and a former Yankee great, Andy Pettitte. They're both tall lefties (Pettitte is 6-5) from the South -- Montgomery is from Sumter, S.C., Pettitte from Baton Rouge, La. Pettitte was one of Montgomery's heroes as a kid.

Of course, Pettitte won 256 games (219 for the Yanks) and was part of five World Series champions. Montgomery is 3-4. He hasn't yet pitched seven full innings in a start. Girardi was tempted to leave him in Saturday, but he knows how grueling your first full big-league season can be.

"The kid can pitch," Girardi said. ""He's able to expand the zone with his breaking ball. He able to throw changeups and throw off-speed behind in the count. He's got a good sinker, too, which I thought helped to set up some of his other pitches today.

"People always ask who I compare him to. Andy was similar, but he was more cutters than changeups. To me, that's the biggest difference. But if he wants to pitch like Andy Pettitte for 15 years, that's OK."

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