PITTSBURGH -- John Holdzkom is 30 years old now, married and more than two years removed from his last professional pitch. He's ready to give it one more shot.In December, Holdzkom will travel across the globe to pitch in the Australian Baseball League for the Auckland Tuatara, an expansion team.
PITTSBURGH -- John Holdzkom is 30 years old now, married and more than two years removed from his last professional pitch. He's ready to give it one more shot.
In December, Holdzkom will travel across the globe to pitch in the Australian Baseball League for the Auckland Tuatara, an expansion team. His father was born in New Zealand, he still has family there, and he represented the island nation during the 2013 World Baseball Classic qualifiers. It was a natural fit.
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There is uncertainty, of course. But the power-armed reliever's right shoulder -- "definitely minced meat there for a while," as he put it -- has finally healed. And Holdzkom is not quite comfortable calling it a career after he reached the zenith of professional baseball for only a month four years ago.
"It'll be exciting to go back there," Holdzkom said, "and see if I can pull one more rabbit out of my hat."
If anyone can make you a believer in baseball magic, it might be Holdzkom. He's done it before. In 2014, he completed an improbable journey out of independent ball and became an unlikely September hero for the Pirates.
The Mets picked Holdzkom in the fourth round of the 2006 Draft. He blew through his $210,000 signing bonus and blew out his elbow before being released in '11. He wound up in the Australian Baseball League in '12. The next year, he pitched in the independent American Association to keep his dream alive. He returned to independent ball in '14, only to be cut by the Sioux Falls Canaries.
"I was like, 'Wow, I don't think you can go much lower,'" Holdzkom said. "But there actually was a league lower."
He signed with the San Angelo Colts of United League Baseball, an independent league that paid $600 per month and no longer exists. He made it back to the American Association, joining the Amarillo Sox. During his brief stint there, he caught the eye of Pirates scout Mal Fichman.
Holdzkom was feeling confident, he said, and seeing improved results as he was "finally" throwing strikes. It typically takes longer for tall pitchers to learn their bodies and harness their stuff. That was especially true for the 6-foot-9 Holdzkom. But when it all came together that summer, he was dominant.
"That was always my battle. If I could just throw strikes, I could probably get some people out," Holdzkom said. "Once that ball started rolling, wow, I had nothing but confidence every time I took the mound."
Fichman approached Holdzkom and eventually offered every independent ball player's dream: a way out. The Pirates, desperately searching for middle-relief help as they battled for a postseason spot, signed Holdzkom to a Minor League deal on June 24 and sent him to Double-A Altoona.
"It happened very quickly," he said. "All it took was being in the right place at the right time, thank God."
Players typically heard about Holdzkom before they saw him. In Triple-A, right-hander Nick Kingham said, they received word from Double-A players about a big reliever mowing down opposing batters: "Hey, we've got this guy."
Holdzkom jumped to Triple-A Indianapolis on July 5 after striking out 10 in four appearances for Altoona. He played catch with Kingham before games and slept on the couch at the apartment Kingham shared with teammate Tyler Waldron.
"By the time I got to Indianapolis, that was like my fifth team in six weeks. I was just like the permanent new guy," Holdzkom said. "It was just like, 'Who's got a room?'"
Holdzkom continued to pitch well, and the Pirates added him to their roster at the end of August. Josh Harrison remembered hearing someone in Pittsburgh's clubhouse say, "Man, they're bringing up 'Big John' Holdzkom." The response? "Man, who is that?"
Holdzkom ran out of the visitors' bullpen at Busch Stadium on Sept. 2 with the Pirates trailing the Cardinals, 6-4. Even now, he remembers being surprised by how normal it all felt. He was relaxed and ready to pitch. Then he struck out the side on 14 pitches, a mix of blazing cut fastballs and palmballs.
He made eight scoreless appearances before he allowed a run, picking up his first win, a save and four holds as he worked his way into a higher-leverage role. He struck out 14 batters and scattered only four hits over his nine regular-season appearances. The teammates who hadn't heard of him in August came to love his occasionally goofy personality and consistently dominant performance in September.
"It was like, 'All right, Big John's coming in,'" Harrison said. "Good luck to y'all."
Holdzkom helped stabilize the Pirates' bullpen as they finished the season with the top National League Wild Card spot. He made Pittsburgh's Wild Card Game roster and pitched at PNC Park in the Bucs' 8-0 loss to the Giants and eventual October hero Madison Bumgarner.
"What he did for us and how he helped us in that short time period, it was so beneficial -- and the timing, oh, it couldn't have been better. It helped us get to the Wild Card," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "We'll always be in debt for it. The timing was just impeccable."
The baseball season can be a grind, a head-down slog forward that rarely provides time for reflection and introspection. But everything hit Holdzkom on his flight from Pittsburgh to Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. He had left home for San Angelo, Texas, bound for one of the lowest levels of indy ball. He went back as a big leaguer.
"It was so fast, there was no time to sit back and relax," Holdzkom said. "It is pretty crazy to look at. That's the most basic way to describe it. You're speechless, kind of, thinking about it. My whole career was kind of difficult, then for one season, all the cards just aligned perfectly."
As quickly as Holdzkom earned his folk-hero status, he was gone. He did not pitch another inning for the Pirates after 2014. He was optioned to Triple-A in '15, a frustrating lesson on the business side of the game, and went on the disabled list three times due to shoulder injuries.
He reported to Spring Training in 2016 and felt "excruciating pain" every time he pitched. His high-90s fastball was reduced to 89-91 mph. The Pirates sent him out of big league camp and designated him for assignment. The White Sox signed him to a Minor League deal and gave him a chance to rehab, but he didn't rebound.
For his own good, Holdzkom had to stop pitching for a while. What his rotator cuff needed was rest. But after pulling himself from obscurity to the highest level of professional baseball, the last thing he wanted to do was rest. He did it, anyway.
He helped out with some baseball camps in New Zealand after the 2016 season, trying to grow the game in a country he'll soon represent in the Australian Baseball League. He got married last November and now lives with his wife, Leah, near Bradenton, Fla. He's been to a Pirates Spring Training game each of the past two years.
Now, he's ready to prove himself again.
"It was definitely frustrating, because I finally felt like I figured it out, then I got hurt," Holdzkom said. "That's why it's been hard to just completely not play anymore. I feel like I've got to give it one more shot."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.