SURPRISE, Ariz. — In a way, Greg Holland’s dashed dream may have prepared him to be a closer.
Holland, who grew up in North Carolina, wanted to be a professional athlete. He just never envisioned becoming a pitcher.
“I wanted to be a shortstop or basketball player, but neither one of those happened,” Holland said. “I always thought I would play shortstop next to Chipper Jones.”
Holland, now the Royals’ closer, is obviously not with the Braves. As for basketball.…
“I missed out on that growth spurt,” the 5-foot-10 Holland said with a laugh. “There are a lot of short kids who think they are going to play basketball at Duke or Carolina. You even get a few N.C. State fans.”
Holland’s fall-back career has turned out to be a blessing for the Royals. A successful closer deals with disappointment now and again, and while Holland’s hoops dreams were dashed, he has become the anchor of what could be an outstanding Royals bullpen.
Holland was the Royals’ Pitcher of the Year in 2012 after a season in which he took the closer’s role when Jonathan Broxton was traded on July 31. After the deal was announced, manager Ned Yost approached Holland.
“He tapped me on the shoulder and said I’d have the first crack at it,” Holland said with a laugh. “That was fine with me, because we’ve got four or five guys in the bullpen who have shown they can throw late in the game. We also discussed doing it by committee. He told me you get the first crack at it, and I went out there and tried to go about my business.”
Holland thrived, converting his first 13 save chances and 16 of 18 overall. In the last two months of the season, he had a 1.98 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings. Opponents hit just .194 against him in that span.
It was a great finish to a season that started poorly. A rib injury landed him on the disabled list in April when his ERA was 11.37.
“Those things can really suck the life out of you as an individual,” Holland said. “But being able to go on the field and get better, and being resilient and pitching well once I got back was pretty rewarding.”
Upon his return, Holland thrived even before claiming the closer’s role. He finished the year 7-4 with a 2.96 ERA in 67 games. Holland’s 12.22 strikeouts per nine innings was second in the American League and the best in Royals history.
There was no need to tap Holland’s shoulder this year.
“He’s fearless when he steps on the mound,” Yost said. “He was just very, very successful every time we put him in that situation. Going into this year, it wasn’t even a consideration. It’s his job.”
Yost praised Holland’s ability to throw three pitches (fastball, slider, change-up) consistently for strikes. Holland reaches the mid-90s with his fastball, which he says is the pitch he’s developed the most since being drafted out of Western Carolina in 2007.
“It’s gotten so much more consistent,” Holland said. “It’s something you’re always trying to address, because your ability to locate your fastball is what makes the game go round. I’m always trying to improve that. I felt like the biggest difference from when I got drafted to now is my fastball command.”
Holland, who made his major-league debut in 2010, also had the benefit of watching and learning from a pair of All-Star closers in Broxton and Joakim Soria.
Mostly, Holland said, he learned about keeping his emotions in check on the mound. But he has always seemed to have a calm demeanor.
“Some people can bounce back from it really quickly and some people aren’t as good at that,” Holland said. “I always joke around and say I’ve given it up so many times in my career that you don’t get used to it, but you have to be ready to go the next day.
“I’m not one of these guys who is going to break a bunch of stuff and throw chairs, but I hate to lose as much as anyone. You’ve got to learn from it, because it’s going to happen, and wake up the next morning refreshed and have it put in the past. Learn from it what you need to learn from it and then go on.”
Royals fans hope that he won’t learn too many of those lessons this year.