For Bucs, Holdzkom can be second coming of K-Rod
Pirates hope reliever has all the factors to recreate magic of 2002 Angels
PITTSBURGH -- He materialized out of nowhere in September. With his sharply downward breaking pitches, he quickly appeared in five games in relief, giving up nothing. His manager knew he'd come across something special and began fantasizing about what a secret weapon he could be in October.
John Holdzkom, 2014? No -- try Francisco Rodriguez, 2002.
Twelve years after the Angels procured Rodriguez virtually out of thin late-season air and rode his arm to a World Series title, the Pirates have a chance to recreate that magic: A mysterious reliever, unknown to Major League scouts and batters, locking down the money games.
"I sure hope so," said Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington, who had the final say in the decision to sign Holdzkom on June 23. "I hope we'll be able to have him pitch in some important games in October. I don't know how many scoreless innings K-Rod threw that season, but he was absolutely nails, lights out, and we hope John can do that for us."
The answer is: five. The 2002 Halos did not unveil Rodriguez until Sept. 18, and his stretch-drive contribution consisted of five scoreless appearances -- all in losses, as the club test-ran him to see what it had.
But Angels manager Mike Scioscia knew right away.
"It took us about three pitches to say, 'This guy's pretty special.' It was an eye-opener," Scioscia told MLB.com on Saturday.
Holdzkom has also made five appearances, all scoreless, facing only one batter over the minimum.
Bucs manager Clint Hurdle thinks he might have something special, too.
"He's just hammering strikes," Hurdle said. "He's very confident on the mound right now. Throwing at a downhill angle, firm."
Rodriguez baffled big league hitters with his split-fingered fastball. Holdzkom also has that in his repertoire, although his featured pitch is the palmball. The splitter, and their early success, is about all Rodriguez and Holdzkom have in common.
The late-September entry made Rodriguez a unique revelation, but he pitched in Triple-A most of that season, his fourth in the Halos' system after having been signed as a 17-year-old out of Venezuela.
Holdzkom was signed from San Angelo, the independent league team with which he was earning $600 a month.
And while at first sighting K-Rod was seen as a little kid who had yet to grow into his 6-foot stature, Holdzkom is 26, and 6-foot-9.
The second-tallest guy in the Pirates' bullpen had heard about the legend of Holdzkom, even briefly met him, long ago. Jared Hughes roomed in 2009 at Double-A Altoona with Lincoln Holdzkom, John's older brother who briefly passed through Pittsburgh's Minor League organization.
"He was always talking about his 'little' brother," Hughes said, "how he was seven feet tall and threw 100 [mph]."
Only slight exaggerations, on both counts. John was a big enough prospect for the Mets to take him in the fourth round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft and give him a $210,000 signing bonus. He threw hard, lived harder, injured his elbow and had been released by New York by 2011.
That began a three-year cycle during which Holdzkom matured and remained active on baseball's fringes -- until Tyrone Brooks, the Bucs' director of player personnel, received a mid-June call from Mal Fichman.
Fichman is a longtime independent-ball networker hired in May by the Pirates for the specific purpose of sniffing out independent talent, and he had just stumbled across this big kid throwing in the mid-90s to overmatched batters in the United League.
Brooks consulted with Bucs assistant GMs Kyle Stark and Greg Smith, and with Larry Broadway, director of Minor League operations.
"We happened to have an opening in Double-A, so I got the blessing to sign him," Brooks said. "It takes one team, one person, to really believe in you, and Mal really went to bat for him. John got the opportunity, and has made the most of it."
"Having been bounced by too many teams, I definitely feel the pressure to do well," said Holdzkom, who has no hard feelings about having had to wait so long for a genuine chance. "I can't complain about the journey. I've had other chances, just didn't capitalize on them. I had to mature, and just get comfortable as a professional."
Holdzkom is "a little surprised" to immediately get thrust into a key role. It may just be beginning.
It could follow the Rodriguez blueprint. By the time the 2002 postseason began, Scioscia had no hesitation: K-Rod appeared in 10 of the 11 wins that carried the Angels to the World Series crown, totaling 28 strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings.
"When we saw his stuff and looking at how our bullpen was shaping out and some of the holes we were trying to fill, it became an easy decision," Scioscia recalled. "We didn't originally put him in the back end of our 'pen. First [Division] Series against New York, he was pitching in the middle. But by the time we got to the Minnesota [Championship] Series, he was pitching in the eighth inning [setting up closer Troy Percival] and pitching really well."
"There is that similarity -- of being unknown," said Hurdle. "Of an unknown guy being able to make a late-season difference, yeah."
As a native of Pasadena, Calif., Holdzkom is very familiar with the K-Rod phenomenon.
"Yeah, I remember watching him come up with the Angels," Holdzkom said. "If we keep winning, it will be a lot more fun. And if I can help out in any way, I'll be happy."
So, too, will Fichman.