Royals closer Greg Holland’s ‘crazy ride’ finds him among baseball’s best

06/25/2013 4:10 PM

08/06/2014 2:16 AM

The college scouts didn’t think the short third baseman was worth their time and, really, you couldn’t blame them. What was there to see? The kid was 5-foot-7 and maybe 150 pounds, for starters. And his jaw was wired shut, from the time a catcher’s pickoff throw hit him in the face.

The doctor had him in what amounts to a mask, to protect his jaw, even though the bone would surely break again at first contact. The kid lost weight and strength because he could only eat through a straw. There were no scholarship offers in those days.

Only dreams.

“It’s been a crazy ride,” Greg Holland is saying in the Royals clubhouse. “I’ve just never been at the top of anyone’s list.”

Holland is now the Royals’ closer, and one of the best in baseball. He has saved 16 of 18 chances this season with a 1.93 ERA. Only five others in baseball, including Mariano Rivera, have that many saves with that low of an ERA; only three, including the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman, have a higher strikeout rate (14.1 per nine innings).

Holland is the anchor for what has been among the sport’s best bullpens, one of the game’s strongest ninth-inning forces coming from a kid without a college scholarship offer. This is a long way from the high school infielder with a wired-shut jaw trying to walk-on as a pitcher at Western Carolina.

“First impression?” says Paul Menhart, then Western’s pitching coach. “Who’s this little short kid?”

Menhart’s second impression was of a very country young man — “His accent was just over the top” — who was entirely inexhaustible. Maybe you’ve seen kids like this. Obsessed with finishing first in every drill. Consumed with nailing technique, and of putting every pitch where it needs to go — even in side sessions.

Maybe that was because Holland always knew he had no margin for error. Maybe it was because he grew up on baseball fields across North Carolina, either following his dad around for another softball tournament or playing catch with his older brother.

Even today, Holland isn’t sure. He’s just always been this way.

“From the time he was old enough to keep the glove on his hand,” says Scott Holland, Greg’s father, “man, he always — always — wanted to be the best player on the field. Always. I’m not saying he always thought he was the best player, but he always wanted to be.”

Holland made the team at Western, eventually, mostly because he never gave the coaches comfort in cutting him. They talked seriously about it — three times, at least — but kept coming back to the fierceness that “this little short kid” carried.

What coach would cut his hardest-working player?

In time, Holland became something like a human pep talk for the rest of the team. Once, after he’d become an integral part of the squad, Holland remembers a coach in mid-tirade telling the team they would’ve cut him long ago if he didn’t work so hard, and that, “maybe the rest of you guys should think about that.”

Holland laughs now when he remembers this, and why not? The Royals drafted him in the 10th round in 2007 after a scout in the room told Dayton Moore there was a big-leaguer still on the board. The Royals liked Holland’s attitude, his lack of fear, the comfort they had that he would stand up to the rigors of life in the minor leagues.

Holland made it through the Royals’ farm system in three years — Moore’s first draft pick to graduate — and is quite open about the fact that he didn’t expect any of this. The big league career. Popping 100 mph on the radar gun. Striking out 40 percent of the batters he faces.

Holland started this season miserably, blowing the Royals’ fifth game and nearly coughing up the next one, too. The popular move back then was to demote Holland and make Kelvin Herrera the closer. But Holland went four weeks before giving up another run.

He’s now been effectively perfect since May 6: nine saves, one win, a 0.56 ERA, 25 strikeouts and nine baserunners in 16 innings.

The league is hitting .184 against him with a .264 on-base and .265 slugging percentage, which means that no matter which struggling Royals hitter you choose, the worst of the bunch has been significantly better than the average big-leaguer against Holland this year.

And it almost didn’t happen.

The broken jaw in high school. No scholarship offers, and the coach who wanted to cut him in college. Holland says now he would’ve been fine if it didn’t work out. If he couldn’t make it at Western Carolina, he says, he probably didn’t have a future in baseball anyway. He just wanted to compete. To see how good he could be.

If that didn’t lead to the big leagues, Holland had a backup plan. He was majoring in natural resource management. Got good grades. It would’ve been a good life.

“I just knew I wanted to do something outside,” he says now. “I didn’t want to be behind a desk.”

And now he isn’t.

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