Mujica and Holland: Opposite ends of the spectrum

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.

Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at frederickson.ben@gmail.com