Kansas City Royals

Royals may have arms to compensate for Soria’s injury

Well, sure, Royals right-hander Greg Holland wants the ball in the ninth inning with the game on the line.

“Everyone in the bullpen wants to be a closer,” he said, “but it’s a process. Someday, obviously, I’d love to close. Right now, that’s not my job. Whatever situation you pitch in, you just try to get the next guy out, stay healthy and let everything take its course.”

Someday might be now.

The Royals find themselves in need of a closer in the wake of Joakim Soria’s elbow injury. A follow-up examination Tuesday in Los Angeles by Dr. Lewis Yocum, an elbow specialist, confirmed damage to Soria’s ulnar collateral ligament.

Such damage often means Tommy John surgery, the reconstructive procedure that typically sidelines a pitcher for a year or more. While Soria is still weighing his options, he isn’t likely to be closing out games at any point in the near future.

Holland and free-agent acquisition Jonathan Broxton are the leading replacement candidates.

“They’ve both looked great this spring,” manager Ned Yost said. “We’ll give it time to play out. We could very well use both of them in that situation. I’ve got the confidence to use both of them. I think they both can handle it.”

Broxton is a former closer who, like Soria, is a two-time All-Star. He saved 56 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2009-10 before missing most of last season because of his own elbow injury. He underwent surgery in September to remove “loose bodies.”

The Royals put him on a go-slow plan this spring to ease the recovery process, but Broxton shows increasing signs of regaining his once-dominant form. He has made four one-inning appearances and is on track to work about 10 innings before camp breaks.

“I’m just trying to make sure the elbow is healthy,” he said. “The best thing for me to do is just to make sure I’m OK and continue to work every day.”

The Royals signed Broxton, 27, to a one-year deal last November to serve as a set-up man for Soria. It represented a $4 million gamble that he get back to his former level.

“We’re seeing a progression,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “He turned it up to 96 (on Tuesday) on the last hitter he faced. The ball is really coming out of his hand well. He’s got some good downhill angle on his fastball. His slider has some late tilt to it.

“He’s right where he needs to be.”

Here’s the thing, though: Holland has been there all along.

Even before Soria’s injury, it spoke to Holland’s elevated status within the relief corps that he was spending the spring working to refine his approach and sharpen some little-used weapons in his arsenal.

The intense battle for jobs in a projected seven-man unit was a concern for others.

Holland’s spot was secure after a breakthrough 2011 that included a 1.80 ERA while limiting opponents to a .175 average. He also racked up 74 strikeouts over 60 innings in 46 appearances and, generally, displayed not only closer’s stuff but a closer’s mentality.

“I love his body language,” Yost said. “What you see on the mound is what you see in the clubhouse with him. There’s no flash. Some guys’ personalities will be different off the mound, but his isn’t. He’s a quiet guy who goes about his business.”

That business this spring is fine-tuning his arsenal.

“My objective,” Holland said, “is to work on a few things that I wasn’t strong at last year – things that, over the course of time, hitters are going to recognize.

“There were times last year,” he explained, “when I felt hitters were giving up the inner half of the plate because I didn’t come in much. That was something I wasn’t comfortable doing because I hadn’t done it as much as I should have done it in the minor leagues.

“If I get ahead, I want to be able to bust somebody in so I don’t necessarily have to bounce a slider to get somebody to roll over. I can throw a strike off-speed pitch and, because I’ve come in, that outer-half pitch is harder to hit. I’m also throwing more curveballs instead of just trying to be a fastball-slider guy. I’ve thrown a lot more splits, and I’ve had a lot of success with it early.”

Teammates rave over Holland’s gunfighter’s presence on the mound.

“He’s one of those guys,” catcher Brayan Peña said, “who can go out there when times are hot and be able to cool it down. You always want a guy like that. The bottom line is we’re so confident when he’s in there.

“Every time he has the ball in his hands, it’s like, `OK, the situation is under control.’ ”

Few Royals players attracted more offseason interest from other clubs than Holland, who is still just 25 and attractively affordable since he is unlikely to be eligible for arbitration until after the 2013 season.

“He’s one of those guys,” Yost said, “who you know what you’re going to get every day. That doesn’t mean he’s going to be perfect. He’s going to get beat on occasion. But day in and day out, you know what you’re going to get, and that’s extremely important.”

Mention this to Holland, and he acts as if you must be talking about someone else.

“There’s a certain comfort level, I guess,” he conceded. “And the more you’re out there, the more comfortable and more confident you are in your stuff.

“I’ve always felt confident, but there were times early in my career where, when stuff started going bad, the game speeds up on you a little bit and you can’t focus on what you need to do here. You’re just kind of like a deer in headlights, I guess you’d say.”

Not anymore.

“I’m just getting the hang of keeping my head where I need to be, concentration-wise,” Holland said. “You learn to limit your mistakes. That comes from being able to re-focus after something bad happens and just go about your business as usual.”

It all positioned Holland, entering camp, as a closer in waiting. Now, that wait might be over. Or maybe he ends up sharing the duty with Broxton – or serving as Broxton’s primary setup man.

“It’s too early to tell,” Yost said. “We’re still trying to figure out our bullpen.”

Holland will take what comes.

“I don’t care either way,” he said. “I want to win games first and foremost. I’m at the point in my career where, whatever you tell me to do, I’m going to try to do it.”

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