SURPRISE, Ariz. -- During the Royals’ World Series championship year in 2015, right-handed closer Greg Holland essentially pitched that season with a severely torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm, an injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery as the Royals marched into the postseason.
Holland, now 34, dealt with the pain then, and recorded 32 saves with a 3.83 ERA, helping to propel the Royals to an American League Central title.
Holland’s journey since has been a roller coaster. After missing 2016 while rehabbing from surgery, Holland signed with Colorado and recorded 41 saves in 2017.
But nothing easy has come since. Holland went unsigned through all of Spring Training in 2018 before signing with the Cardinals, who were then managed by present Royals manager Mike Matheny.
“He came in and we tried to replicate Spring Training for him back then,” Matheny said Wednesday. “I don’t know if I have ever pulled harder for a player for us to sign than when we tried to get him [in St. Louis]. Shame on me because I may have rushed him. We tried to slow-play it. But we had that shiny new toy and I couldn’t wait to see how he could help us.
“We didn’t have a template on how to handle it when a guy misses all of Spring Training. How do you go about it? It was jacked up from the start. He tried to replicate Spring Training. It just didn’t work out. Back against the wall from the beginning.”
Holland pitched in 32 games for Matheny in 2018 and posted a 7.92 ERA before St. Louis finally released him in August. Holland then signed with Washington that season and pitched well -- 0.84 ERA in 24 games. Last season, he had a 4.54 ERA and 17 saves in 40 games for Arizona.
But Holland has never quite captured the magic he had with the Royals when he saved 145 games over six seasons from 2010-2015.
Now, Holland is back with the Royals. And back with Matheny as well.
“Just having someone like Greg Holland around here is priceless,” Matheny said. “He’s got the experience. He has not only won, but he has won here. We didn’t have a long run together in St. Louis, unfortunately. It was kind of jacked up from the beginning.”
Nothing is given in terms of Holland making this team. He was signed to a Minor League deal, and there is plenty of competition for every spot in the bullpen, including competition from another Matheny favorite -- Trevor Rosenthal.
“They have to make the club,” Matheny said. “I watched Trevor last year. It didn’t go as well for him last year as he wanted. But he’s still young with a huge ceiling. It’s a great opportunity for both of them. They’ve done it at a high level on the big stage. But you still have to come out and win the job.”
Holland’s story would be somewhat of a fairy tale if he could break camp with the team. He’s not the flamethrower he was in 2013-2014 when he saved 93 games and lit up the radar gun at 97-98 mph.
Holland’s four-seamer now sits around 92. He still has an effective slider -- opponents hit just .176 against it last year and he had a 46 percent whiff rate with it.
But Holland now has to rely on experience and knowledge more than raw velocity.
“Do you reinvent yourself? I don’t know,” Holland said. “As you get older, you’re supposed to pitch better. When you’re young and you throw hard, you can make mistakes. But also, when you’re young, you’ll make more mistakes because you don’t have the repetitions.
“For me, when I throw the ball where I want to, it’s a pretty simple game of understanding what hitters are trying to do -- their tendencies. It’s not about making up a new pitch or anything. It’s just executing.”
The bigger issue for Holland over the last three seasons has been command. His walk rate in 2014 with the Royals was 2.9. That spiked to 6.2 in 2018 and 6.1 last season.
“I think for me it’s just about getting back to a place where I can throw strikes,” Holland said. “The last couple of years has been a struggle for that. But I know I still have enough confidence that if I can command the strike zone, and I can keep my body healthy, I know I can pitch at a high level.
“I don’t know [if it’s just mechanics]. It’s just one of those things where you struggle enough that it just becomes overwhelming. It just didn’t feel real fluid. ... I felt like my arm was strong and my legs were beneath me. But for whatever reason, the ball wasn’t coming out of my hand really well. The timing was off. It just wasn’t clicking.”
But now back with the Royals, Holland hopes to regain his previous dominance.
“I jumped around the last few years,” he said. “I just assumed I would be here for 20 years and go into the [Royals] Hall of Fame. But that’s not how baseball works.”
Perhaps reuniting with Matheny will help, though Holland admits there weren’t many fond memories of their first go-round -- and that had nothing to do with Matheny.
“I don’t have too many good memories,” Holland said, smiling. “I pitched like [garbage]. When I talked to Mike last fall, I told him I owed him a bunch of outs. Hopefully, I can pay back [that debt].”