KANSAS CITY -- It didn't look like a very good year for Greg Holland. Not at all.
In his first seven games, the right-handed Royals reliever had two losses, one blown save and an 11.37 ERA, and opponents were pummeling him for a .406 average. Then he went on the disabled list for three weeks with a left rib stress reaction.
When Holland returned on May 12, he was like a new man. He pitched an inning against the White Sox and struck out the side. There was no stopping him after that.
"I kind of kept my nose to the grindstone and worked my way through it," Holland said. "I was proud to be able to come back and have a good year and help the team. I felt responsible for a lot of those losses early in the year, and to be able to come back and help win some games meant a lot to me."
Holland's superb season was topped off on Tuesday when he was named winner of the 2012 Bruce Rice Award as the Royals Pitcher of the Year by the Kansas City Chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. The award is named for a popular K.C. sportscaster who died in 1978.
After returning from the DL, Holland had a 7-2 record, 16 saves and a 2.08 ERA in 60 games. He held the opposition to a .208 average. Holland was so good that the Royals didn't hesitate to give him the closer's role after Jonathan Broxton was traded to the Cincinnati Reds.
The early-season time off turned out to be a blessing.
"My back and rib injuries were something that was causing me to not be effective, and when you're not effective, you're putting your team in a bad spot going out there in those late-inning situations," Holland said.
"It's one of those things where I hated to go on the DL. I felt like I needed to be out there pitching, but I had to do what was best for the team and it worked out well in the long run."
Sure did. While recovering, Holland also fine-tuned his mechanics and kept himself from falling off so violently toward the third-base side. That enabled him to direct his pitches more toward the plate and keep them lower in the strike zone.
This is the same Holland who, in Spring Training 2010, was a rookie with explosive stuff that, alas, too often had a mind of its own regarding final destination.
"He made dramatic improvements from the time he got here in 2010," manager Ned Yost recalled late this past summer. "He was all over the place; he had great stuff, but his command was very inconsistent. But when he came back to Spring Training the next year, he was what he is today.
"I don't know how he made such a dramatic improvement; I don't know what clicked for him. He went to winter ball, but something definitely clicked and he became a guy that has great stuff with impeccable command. It's made the difference for him. It was command, because he's got makeup, he's got tremendous composure on the mound, he's a tremendous competitor with great stuff that can command the ball. So I have as much trust in him as any closer I've ever had."
As Spring Training closed, Broxton got the nod to replace injured right-hander Joakim Soria as closer because Broxton had been an All-Star at the job with the Los Angeles Dodgers. That left Holland and Aaron Crow as setup men, a role in which Holland had excelled in 2011, posting a 5-1 record, four saves and a miniscule 1.80 ERA in what officially was his rookie year. He also allowed just two of 33 inherited runners to score, the best mark in the Majors.
But Holland had not been a full-time closer before the second half of this year.
"He's gone into it with the complete right mindset: 'It's three outs. I've got to get three outs,'" Yost reflected after Holland had saved two games against Detroit in late August. "You could sit there and dwell and focus and think about, 'It's the ninth inning,' but in reality, you just have to go out and get three outs. It's no different than going out in the third or whatever. You've got to get three outs."
Holland often got his three outs with strikeouts. In his 67 innings, Holland piled up 91 strikeouts. He had at least one strikeout in 14 of his final 15 outings of the season.
The Royals have been Holland's only professional team. They drafted him in the 10th round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft out of Western Carolina University, not far from his Marion, N.C., home.
Now, Holland lives in Asheville, N.C., where he's currently involved in the deer-hunting season.
"It's been open for a while and they're beating me up pretty good," Holland said. "They're a lot smarter than me right now, but I'll get it fixed."
Holland always seems to be able to get things fixed, especially on the mound.
Holland's numbers for the entire season included a 7-4 record, 16 saves, a 2.96 ERA and one very pleased manager.