Taking Center Field


Andrew Edmonson

Center fielder Paul Montalbano prepares for a pitch in a game against Oklahoma last weekend. Montalbano replaced the injured Cohl Walla in March and has has .400 since making the move to center field.

Trey Scott

Funny thing is, Paul Montalbano actually thinks he’s best suited to be a pitcher.

“Oh yeah, I can still pitch, I can still throw it right past people — high 80s,” he said. “Honestly, I think that’s what I’m best at.”

When Montalbano, now a senior, signed with Texas two years ago out of Weatherford College, he thought he’d be pitching. He had compiled a 13-5 career record at Weatherford ­— two of those wins being no-hitters.

“It’s kind of funny because I got recruited to pitch, but that didn’t work out so great once I got here,” he said. “I guess the coaches saw me as a better outfielder.”

The Texas coaching staff decided to take Montalbano off the mound and back in to the batters’ box — he had, after all, demonstrated an ability to hit with a .345 career batting average at Weatherford.

Ever since Cohl Walla fouled a pitch off his left knee March 29, the Longhorns have needed a center fielder. Montalbano has been their man.

“Walla is a great player, but I just try to get in there and compete with the other guys, just play balls to the wall,” he said. “I was glad to get my chance.”

In 18 games as Walla’s replacement, Montalbano is batting .400. The Longhorns are 14-4 with him as the starting center fielder, and are scoring five runs a game. For comparison, Walla had a .247 average before he was sidelined with a deep bone contusion.

Montalbano may cover less ground in the outfield — Walla is the fastest guy on the team — but he is hardly a defensive downgrade. He’s had 59 putouts in 60 chances with no errors. Walla, on the other hand, had 39 chances with 36 putouts, and one error. With Montalbano in center, the Longhorns have not missed a beat defensively. In fact, they might be a bit better.

“Instead of talking about Montalbano filling in for Walla, it may soon be Walla filling in for Montalbano,” said head coach Augie Garrido. “Paul has played center field as well as it needs to be played. Maybe Paul is the best center fielder for us right now.”

Montalbano began the year as the starting left fielder, but was demoted because of an inability to hit. Since his lucky break, he has found a new strategy — not trying as hard.

“It’s kind of funny, because in the beginning of the year I was getting to the park like three to four hours before the game to work out, and I would get tired,” Montalbano said. “Lately, I’ve just been trying to relax.”

In the majors, the fifth spot in the lineup is usually reserved for the bigger hitters, the Robinson Canós and Lance Berkmans of the league. But for this quirky Texas offense, where the long ball is a long shot, Montalbano has fit in perfectly. Last Tuesday against Texas State, he hit an RBI-triple. Friday against Oklahoma, he went 2-4 with a go-ahead double. The next day, he hit an RBI-double.

“I was very reluctant to put him in the five-hole because, obviously, he’s not the prototype five-hole hitter,” Garrido said. “But maybe we’re not the prototype offense, either. He sustains rallies.”

Last year, in his first game as a Longhorn, Montalbano had a pinch-hitting opportunity in the bottom of the ninth against Houston at Minute Maid Park. There were two outs and two runners on base. On a 2-1 pitch, he hit a sharp liner that looked like it would pass over the left side of the infield and, at least, score the game-tying run. But Houston’s shortstop, Blake Kelso, leapt up high and caught it to end the game; Montalbano’s heroics were halted by a bad break, a “disappointing” play. This year, he got his break, a second chance to start — and has made the most of it.

“This could be my last year of playing baseball,” he said. “I’m probably not going to make it to the majors, so I’m trying to end this season on a winning note.”