Ben Frederickson is an award-winning writer for FOX Sports Midwest. His work has appeared in the Columbia Missourian, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the New York Times, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Casper Star-Tribune.
ST. LOUIS — Greg Holland sat with a folded newspaper in his hand, filling out the day’s sudoku with a ballpoint pen. He set both down on a clubhouse table as he explained the more complicated mind game he has been playing lately.
“It’s a fine line,” Holland said Wednesday at Busch Stadium. “You can go for a week, and all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Man, I need a day off.’ But I would rather be out there throwing than not throwing, because I know if I’m throwing, then we are in some ballgames.”
So goes the life of a major league closer. You either pitch too often, or not enough. But when you’re the closer on a team that has lost eight games in a row, and you’ve had only two save opportunities this month, and that month is now on its 29th day, it’s the latter — drastically.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” Holland said. “You kind of get used to it. You know what your body needs to do to stay sharp in those times when you’re not throwing a lot.”
Things haven’t always been this way.
The first week of May saw Holland notch his seventh save of the season in a 9-8 win against the Tampa Bay Rays, claim his first win of the year in a 6-5 extra-innings contest against the Chicago White Sox and blow a save in a 2-1 extra-innings loss to that same Chicago team.
In less than seven days, Holland had stepped onto the mound with a one-run lead three times. Those are the situations closers are made for. Those are the situations Holland and his Royals have not had much of since.
Kansas City has lost 18 of its last 22 games entering Thursday night’s contest against the Cardinals. Holland has appeared in just four of those games. None was a save opportunity.
“It’s tough,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “And it gets tougher on the road. He’s been going four days, then he’ll pitch. Then five days, then he’ll pitch.”
In order to stay active, Holland has covered the ninth inning of the following four games: a 4-2 loss to the New York Yankees on May 12; a 9-5 win against the Los Angeles Angels on May 15; a 7-3 win against the Houston Astros on May 21; and a 7-0 loss to the Los Angeles Angels on May 25.
It was work, yes. But not the kind of work closers specialize in. As a result, Holland has logged extra practice sessions on the mound and done an increased amount of flat-land work as well. When he does come into games with no chance of a save, he does the same thing any closer in the situation does — trick your brain into believing your arm is throwing for a save.
“You have to go out there and try to make your pitches, try to be aggressive like a save situation,” Cardinals closer Edward Mujica said. “When you go out there in a no-save situation, it might be that your body doesn’t have much energy. But you have to be the same in every situation.”
Easier said than done.
“Those guys, they’re a special breed that really excel in that situation,” Yost said. “There’s not much you can do [to replicate save situations]. We’ve just got to have a couple leads, and let him get back into regular work.”
It looked like it was going to happen Wednesday. But then Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran smashed an Aaron Crow pitch 420 feet for a solo home run over the right field wall in the bottom of the eighth inning, and the Royals’ 3-1 lead was whittled to one. Then David Freese singled to score Allen Craig, and Daniel Descalso singled to score Yadier Molina and Freese.
The Cardinals’ late surge and eventual 5-3 win — capped by Mujica’s 17th save — meant another much-needed save opportunity for Holland had gone up in smoke, like the post-victory fireworks that lit up the St. Louis sky.
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