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Holland's evolution has given KC elite closer

Right-hander overcame early career struggles, embraced competitive nature

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- There's a story about Greg Holland that manager Ned Yost likes to tell, which he did at the Royals FanFest a while back. It's about Holland's big league debut on Aug. 2, 2010, at Oakland.

"The thing with Holly back then is he had great stuff but really struggled to command his fastball. He'd throw it all over the place," Yost said.

So it was the eighth inning, the Royals were getting beat by the A's in a shutout and it looked like a low-stress situation for Holland.

"It's always kind of cool for me to see guys make their Major League debuts, because they've worked their whole life to get to this point and now their dream's going to be recognized when he gets to be a Major League pitcher," Yost said.

Holland got the first batter out but then came a walk, a single and an infield hit that scored a run.

"It's 3-2 on the next guy and he walks him, and he's got the bases loaded and one out," Yost said. "You could tell at this point that his Major League debut is not going really well. So I called time out and walked out to the mound and looked him in the eye and calmly as I could I said, 'Hey, you've got yourself in a little bit of a jam here, don't you?' And he looked at me and said, 'Yeah.'

"So I said, 'Here's what you do.' Jason Kendall was the catcher. I said, 'You just stay focused on Jason. He's going to give you a nice little target. You just attack. Don't try to aim it, don't try to guide it. Just rear back and fire it into the zone to Jason, and you're going to get this guy to hit a ground ball.' "

The infielders, of course, gathered around to listen.

"'Now, who wants a ground ball?'" Yost asked them. "I turned to the infielders and they're all looking at me. I said, 'Who wants it? Who's going to get this ground ball and turn two for Holly?' And they're all looking at each other and Yuniesky Betancourt says, 'I'll take it.' So I said, 'Holly, here's what you do. Stay focused on Jason, this guy's going to hit a ground ball and Yuni's going to turn two for you and we're going to go sit in the dugout.' Second pitch, ground ball and Yuni turns two, and Holly walks off the mound with a big smile on his face."

Holland was listening as Yost unraveled the tale. What did the pitcher think?

"He should've come out before the inning started," Holland said with a wry smile.

Things have changed dramatically for Holland. He's in the Royals' Spring Training camp for the second time as the club's Pitcher of the Year.

After a rocky beginning in 2010, he went to Venezuela to play that winter, harnessed his command and came to the Royals' camp in '11 looking like a new pitcher.

Called up from Triple-A Omaha early that year, Holland quickly became the Royals' most reliable reliever. By midseason 2012, he graduated from setup man to full-time closer. And in '13, he had 47 saves in 50 chances, a 1.21 ERA, 103 strikeouts and just 18 walks in 67 innings.

"It's been a process for me, and it's something I hope to continue to build on. But the thing that's helped me the most is just staying in the moment and not looking at the big picture, especially when stuff starts going wrong for me," Holland said.

"You can think about the situation at hand and the pitch at hand instead all the negative things that might have already happened in the game. Then you can calm yourself down and slow the game down. This game's played at a fast level and a lot of times as a young pitcher when things are going good it's easy. But when things are going bad it speeds up on you, you don't think very well, you just kind of look at the plate and throw it."

Holland was a shortstop and third baseman at McDowell High in Marion, N.C., and then was a walk-on candidate at Western Carolina University.

"I had to walk on there at Western Carolina, and I just always wanted to be as good as I could be and I never knew where that was going to lead me," he said. "Few of us do."

What it led to for Holland was not the infield but the pitching mound.

"I've always felt like I had something to prove. It's always been my mentality, so I kind of pitch with a chip on my shoulder, I guess," Holland said.

That chip is a good thing, according to pitching coach Dave Eiland.

"Every pitcher should have it -- all the great ones do," Eiland said. "Holly is an extreme talent, but his makeup matches it. I hate to use clichés, but he has that bulldog mentality - 'I'm coming at you, and here we go.'"

That chip apparently is part of his DNA.

"I guess I've always had it," Holland said. "I grew up playing baseball with my dad and my brother. We love the game and we love to be outside playing sports, whatever it was. I think it's just the competitive nature. You can't really teach it, you either have it or you don't."

Holland's wife, Lacey, has learned first-hand about Holland's competitiveness.

"Whatever I was doing, I always wanted to be the best," Holland said. "I still get really upset when my wife beats me at cards or something at home. She's always giving me stuff like, 'It's just a game!' "

Holland always has an answer for her: "It's a game, but we're playing it to win. So why would I not want to win?"

Most of the time, he does.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for

Kansas City Royals, Greg Holland