KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sometimes, there would be one shiner. Sometimes, it was two. The cover story was the same, regardless:
“How’d you get that black eye?” Todd Raleigh would ask.
“Fell down the stairs,” Greg Holland would reply, grinning sheepishly.
The first time, it worked. But as a Western Carolina Catamount, Holland seemed to fall down the stairs a hell of a lot more than the average undergrad.
By the third time, it went more like this:
“How’d you get that?” Raleigh would ask.
“Fell dow…” Holland would start.
“You didn’t fall down the stairs,” his coach would interject. “I ain’t stupid.”
“When you defend your teammates, and you’re a bulldog, it’s hard to turn off that switch,” Raleigh says now, chuckling at the thought of this 5-foot-10 kid with a 6-foot-8 John Wayne streak.
Then he recalls one of the more legendary post-stair-falling exchanges, this one after the coaching staff got word that a group of Western Carolina baseball players had recently scrapped with several dozen frat types at a party.
Holland apparently wasn’t among the aforementioned group. But legend has it that when the future Kansas City Royals closer heard about the brawl, he went out after the fact to find those responsible and took on six of the aforementioned frat boys. Alone.
Another weekend, two more black eyes.
“How’d you get that?” Raleigh would ask.
“Fell dow …”
“Let’s have some common sense here,” the coach would say. “You can’t beat up five or six guys at one time.”
Raleigh thinks back on his words of wisdom, and chuckles again. With Greg Holland, it was absolutely, 100 percent the wrong thing to say, the wrong button to push, the wrong four-letter word: Can’t.
“He gets better when you tell him he can’t do something,” the former Catamounts coach says now. “You can’t make this team? I’ll show you.’ ‘You can’t get this hitter out? I’ll show you.'”
You ask if he pitches angry, what with the whiplash release, the slider that bites like a cobra, those glares into the batter’s box.
To this, Holland raises one eyebrow, skeptically.
“I try to go out there and control my emotions as (well) as I can,” the Royals closer says. “As a young pitcher, that was something I had trouble with in the past. Now it’s more about concentrating, and trying to execute my pitches in certain situations.”
It’s a fine line. Angry? No. Raging? No. Competitive? Hell, yes.
“Even when I was playing in the yard with my brother and my dad and stuff, playing Wiffle Ball in the yard,” Holland says. “It’s just kind of something you’re born with.
“You just want to be — not the best, but as good as you can be. There were a lot of times where I wasn’t the best player on the field, but I always wanted to be. And that’s kind of the attitude I take every day.”
Chips on the shoulder, notches on the belt. In his first full season as a stopper, the North Carolina native has converted 35 of 37 save opportunities, a success rate of 94.6 percent, just a tick behind Joe Nathan’s 95 percent (38-for-40) for tops among the American League’s regular closers.
An All-Star for the first time this summer, Holland, 27, is quietly stringing together one of the single greatest relief seasons in club history. He’s on a pace to push, or match, the Royals’ single-season franchise record of 45 saves. His WHIP number of 0.902 heading into Wednesday night compared favorably with Dan Quisenberry’s 0.926 in 1983 and Jeff Montgomery’s 1.008 in ’93, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 6.23-to-1 bests both Quiz’s (4.36-to-1) and Monty’s (2.87-to-1) most celebrated campaigns.
“I don’t even think about that,” Holland says. “I think it’s something, at the end of your career, you might look back at.
“But right now, this team is just concerned with getting back in the playoff picture and winning some ballgames. … Obviously, I’ve been somewhat successful, but winning ballgames is the main objective. Can’t really let things like that, records and stuff, enter your brain, because you’re thinking about the wrong things.”
Holland is a makeup guy, an intangibles guy, a living, breathing, fire-chucking reminder of how scouting is an art and not a science. The Royals selected the right-hander in the 10th round of the 2007 amateur draft more for his toughness and gumption than his size (5-10, 200 pounds) and stuff.
“We did move him to closer, but I never thought he’d close in the big leagues, I guarantee you,” says Raleigh, his old college coach. “I know (Royals general manager) Dayton Moore. I played for Dayton Moore. I can guarantee you, they never, in a million years, ever envisioned this guy being their closer.
“Everything defied logic. His physical stature defied logic. His career defied logic. It’s not just that he made it. It’s the level he’s playing at.”
Another chuckle. Raleigh would love to claim that he discovered the ultimate diamond in the rough, but the truth of the matter is, Holland sort of fell into his lap by luck, or fate, or providence, or some incredible combination of the three.
The kid broke his jaw as a senior in high school, rarely played in his final year of prep ball and turned up at Western Carolina without a scholarship. Raleigh held open tryouts on campus, and Holland was one of the first wild cards to turn up that first day, 160 pounds of pure cocky. He topped out at 86 on the radar gun. Maybe 87, tops.
But here’s the kicker: During the second day of tryouts, Holland showed up again, even though he wasn’t supposed to.
“You pitched already,” Raleigh told him.
“Well,” Holland replied. “I want to pitch again.”
This time, the gun said 88. He stuck.
“He did have that mentality from Day One,” his old coach says. “He always had a chip on his shoulder, as if he had something to prove.”
He always had the quick arm, the nasty slider. Nice kid, too. Smart. Polite. Quiet, almost to a fault. Yes, sir. No, sir. Yes, ma’am. If the Catamounts had a weekend set, three games in three days, Holland wanted to appear in every contest, no questions asked. What’s the word? Gamer. The kid was a gamer.
Raleigh had visits from all scouts with all 30 clubs, but “I guarantee you that over 50-60 percent (of the teams) wouldn’t even turn him in to their area scout, because they wouldn’t look at anybody that small.”
By the time he was a junior at Western Carolina, Holland had a fastball that clocked 91-92-ish. The Catamounts were good, but their ace closer wasn’t just flying below the radar. He was considered beneath it.
“Always have something to prove,” Holland says now. “Every day, every year. That kind of helps me focus and helps me prepare.”
Monty already did the math in his head, a few times over. Holland has saved 35 games, or more than half the club’s 67 victories as of Wednesday afternoon. If the Royals can win 18-20 more contests to finish the year, there’s a good chance Holland can reach — or top — the hallowed 45-save standard shared by Montgomery (1993) and Quisenberry (1983).
“He’s the kind of guy that for anyone — whether you’re a fan or a teammate or an alum or a member of the media — he’s the kind of guy that you’re always pulling for,” says Montgomery, now an analyst with FOX Sports Kansas City.
“He’s got a very straightforward approach. And what you see is what you get. It would be great to see him have a great season, and a great season after that. He’s the kind of guy that’s worked hard to get where he is, and having been through that myself, I can appreciate what he’s been able to accomplish.
“I got asked the same question (with Joakim) Soria, year after year, when he was approaching the same numbers. I know my name is next to it. But I really look at the 45 saves as Quiz’s record — I was just fortunate enough to tie it and get my name next to his.”
Montgomery sees a lot of himself in Holland: Two decades earlier, he was an All-Star reliever with a small stature (5-11) from a small school (Marshall), defying big-time odds with big-time results.
“Size-wise, we’re really comparable,” Holland says of his predecessor-turned-broadcaster. “He just kind of went out there and attacked and kept throwing strikes and made you beat him by hitting the ball and not putting guys on. And that’s kind of how I’ve tried to go about it. You’re going to be successful if you can do that. So we talk on occasion about what your mindset is out there, and stuff like that. And he’s actually helped out quite a bit, as far as that goes.”
But for a star closer, timing is half the battle, and Holland is in the catbird seat with a franchise that’s ascending; a team with a young core that’s now expected to compete for a postseason berth, summer after summer. And more wins for the Royals means …
“He may get 46 this year and 50 next year,” Montgomery says. “It’s not unreasonable to think he’ll be knocking on that door every year.”
“He’s not going to back down from (anything); that’s how he is,” Raleigh says. “When I see him on TV, and see him against (Albert) Pujols or something, he may not get it done, but I know he’s not afraid.”
Because in Holland’s world, there’s only one way to go down: Swinging.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org