A.J. Montano seems like your ordinary junior college baseball player. He has a laidback, friendly demeanor and wears a cap dirtied with experience.
But the odds he overcame to get to this point are anything but ordinary.
At age 3, the Mesa Community College sophomore righthander was “messing around” in his back yard with friends when he was accidentally struck in the right eye with a stick, causing a complete loss of vision in the eye.
“I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Montano said. “I had to learn everything all over. My depth perception was garbage for a long time, and even when I got into high school and played competitive sports it was still pretty bad.”
Montano refused to let the injury slow him down.
He played a year of baseball for Scottsdale Community College, then took two years off before returning to play for the Thunderbirds this season.
And play he has.
Montano assumed the closer’s role on March 11 against Cochise — a game in which he nailed down a 4-3 win after entering a bases-loaded, oneout jam — and promptly went 12 straight appearances without allowing a run.
Montano’s ERA this season is a minuscule 1.33, and he has six saves — one shy of the school single-season record.
“That’s where my confidence all came from, that game right there (against Cochise),” Montano said. “I figured if I could pitch against them I could pitch against anybody.”
Montano had his struggles early in the season, but turned around his fortunes after a visit from former Mesa pitching coach Zeke Zimmerman.
Zimmerman advised Montano to change his over-thetop throwing motion to a more natural submarine style, and the improvement was immediately evident.
Since going to the submarine motion he has pitched 20 innings and allowed just one run.
The save against Cochise came just a week after changing pitching motions.
“He told me it felt kind of natural,” Mesa coach Tony Cirelli said.
“Next thing you know, he’s throwing out of the bullpen. I said, ‘Hey, that’s pretty good. We’ll throw you out there to see how it works.’ “
With Montano firmly entrenched as the closer, the Thunderbirds (39-17, 23-13) have been able to iron out the other pitching roles, leading to a No. 1 national ranking in the latest National Junior College Athletic Association Division II poll.
Mesa has advanced to the Junior College World Series each of the past two seasons, and Cirelli said that has been on his players’ minds all year.
“You try telling these sophomores to (not focus on the World Series),” Cirelli said. “Once you’ve been there, you want to go back.”
The Thunderbirds will look to defend their Arizona Community College Athletic Conference crown in a bestof-three series against Glendale Community College beginning today.
And if it comes down to the pitching of Montano, the Thunderbirds and their sophomore closer don’t feel the slightest bit handicapped.
“It just comes with the territory,” Montano said, of pitching with one good eye.
“I’ve never played in a competitive sport with two eyes. This is the only way I know how to play.”