Young Holland pitches like a veteran

In his postgame interview on FOX, Rangers left-hander Derek Holland told me he was “begging” manager Ron Washington to let him finish the ninth inning of Sunday’s World Series Game 4.

“Very fair description,” Washington said in his classic deadpan style, after Texas’ 4-0 win over St. Louis evened the Series. “He was begging. I just told him if you want to stay out there, ‘Get on your knees.’”

The room burst out laughing.

“He walked off the field,” Washington said.

And as Holland did, the crowd at Rangers Ballpark gave him a huge ovation.

“My arm hairs were sticking up, not that I have much,” Holland told me. “It was tingly. It was like a crazy feeling. But it felt good.”

That was the end of the interview, and I could hear Joe Buck and Tim McCarver chuckling as they resumed wrapping up the broadcast.

With Holland, 25, there is always a little smile, always a little laughter, always something to remind you that while he is totally endearing, he is one goofy left-hander.

You can never predict what the kid might do, that’s for sure. On Sunday night, after three straight sub-par postseason starts, Holland came within two outs of pitching the first shutout by an American League pitcher in the World Series since Jack Morris’ legendary 10-inning performance in Game 7 of the 1991 classic.

Washington lifted Holland after a walk to Cardinals leadoff man Rafael Furcal, summoning closer Neftali Feliz. Holland had insisted he could get a game-ending double play, but with Albert Pujols on deck, Washington wasn’t taking any chances.

“He was like, ‘No, you ain’t going in there, son,’” Holland recalled, imitating Washington. “And I was like, ‘OK.’ And then typically he gave that nice little, ‘Ha, ha, ha!’ That nice little laugh he always does.”

At least when the Rangers are winning.

The night began with Washington putting his hands on Holland’s shoulders, lecturing him about pitching inside and slapping him on the cheek in the dugout.

It ended with Holland having allowed the Cardinals just two hits and two walks in 8-1/3 innings, and the Series tied at two games each.

There was no way to see this coming, except that Holland pitched four shutouts during the regular season, second in the majors only to Philadelphia’s Cliff Lee, who had six.

“It’s in him,” Washington said.

On Saturday, when asked by FOX’s Eric Karros why he chose lefty Matt Harrison over Holland to start Game 3, Washington said that Harrison had been idle for too long. But while the move clearly represented a demotion — Holland had started Game 2 of the ALCS — Washington insisted that he still had faith in the pitcher.

“He’s learning how to fight on a stage that he’s never been a part of,” Washington said. “As long as I see no back-down, I’m good with it.”

Holland again was the subject of our pregame meeting Sunday, but Washington’s mood, in the wake of a 16-7 drubbing the previous night,  was different. He talked passionately about the need for Holland to pitch inside and not leave balls over the middle of the plate.

Was Washington confident that Holland could do that?

“He’d better,” Washington said.

Washington issued one last reminder in the dugout, fearing that Holland would take his advice too literally and start hitting Cardinals, prompting a trademark retaliation from St. Louis manager Tony La Russa.

According to Holland, Washington told him, “If you hit ‘em, one of our guys is probably going to get hit, too. Make sure you stay focused, back ‘em off the plate a little bit, continue to pitch your game.”

And so Holland did, flashing his usual mid-90s velocity, throwing more breaking pitches than in recent starts, pitching inside effectively.

“He worked us over,” La Russa said.

Cardinals third baseman David Freese said that facing Holland was like facing Jonny Venters, the Braves’ filthy left-handed reliever, for eight innings.

But Freese, too, couldn’t help but be amused by Holland — or, at least, by Holland’s mustache, which is a constant source of fodder in the Rangers’ clubhouse.

“I love it. It adds some character. Might add a little bit to that sinker,” Freese said.

Rangers reliever Darren O’Day tweeted after the game, “Silly mustache, serious pitcher.” Catcher Mike Napoli, in a postgame interview on FOX, practically burst out laughing when I asked him about Holland.

“He’s crazy,” Napoli said. “He’s messing around all the time. He wears all kinds of funny shirts all the time. He’s a young kid. He acts like it at the park.”

And away from it, too. The night before Holland pitches, he eats pasta, plays a hockey video game and always watches the same scene from the film “For Love of the Game.”

The film is about a pitcher, played by Kevin Costner, who throws a perfect game in his last career start. Holland watches Costner prepare for the game, then stops the scene at the moment Costner reaches the mound, visualizing himself taking over from there. He began this ritual when he was attending Wallace State in Alabama. He has never seen the entire film, and says he won’t until he retires.

That is not only his quirk. Holland grew up in Newark, Ohio, about an hour from Columbus, the home of Ohio State. Yet he doesn’t root for Ohio State; he roots for Michigan. And, yes, there is a story behind that one, too.

Holland said he emulated his older brother Greg, who started off rooting for Michigan. Greg, though, eventually switched to Ohio State. Derek never did, and constantly hears it from his friends back home.

The Rangers love this stuff.

“He’s a 10-year-old kid in a big-league uniform,” the Rangers’ Michael Young said. “He’s got that kind of infectious energy about him.

“The fun part about it is, he’s really young but he wants to be good. He takes all the steps necessary to go out and make himself an elite pitcher.”

OK, but how many elite pitchers get slapped in the face by their manager, then are instructed to drop to their knees in the same game?

It’s always something with Derek Holland. And on Sunday night, it was something quite good.