A middle infielder at McDowell High School who threw just seven innings and hit .261 his junior year, Greg Holland jacked up his batting average more than 100 points his senior season with the Titans in 2004. It was the genesis of a pattern of steady improvement that has defined his baseball career, from pretty good high school player who interested very few colleges, to a stubborn walk-on at Western Carolina University, to an all-conference closer, to a 10th-round draft pick and now the hottest closer in all of the major leagues who recently pitched his Kansas City Royals team into the World Series.
From humble beginnings in McDowell County, Holland is a two-time All-Star who recently had the October of a lifetime. He pitched in 10 postseason games for the Royals and went seven-for-seven in save opportunities, the first coming after he flew cross-country from North Carolina to California and arrived mid-game so he could witness the birth of his first child. He made three appearances in the World Series, earning a save in Game 3. His four saves in the American League Championship Series tied a major-league record.
In addition, Holland was named the first winner of the Mariano Rivera Award, a new honor handed out by Major League Baseball to the best relief pitcher in the American League. Holland even made the cover of Sports Illustrated, gracing a limited edition of the magazine that featured a cover photo of him running around the field at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, waving a huge Royals’ flag after Kansas City’s 9-8, 12-inning wild-card playoff game win against Oakland. At age 28, he has more saves (100) than any other closer in the game over the past two years.
“It’s a great story, and we’re loving it around here,” said Dennis “Flea” Blake ’77, Holland’s high-school baseball coach. “He was a pretty good high-school player, but he was 5-7, maybe 150 pounds, and he wasn’t big or strong enough to pitch more than a few innings. But he wanted to be a baseball player, loved to play, had a big ol’ heart, and he had that drive, that determination. And look at him now.”
At the same time he was pursuing the dream of a berth in the World Series, Holland was waiting on the birth of his first child. The Royals had chased the Detroit Tigers down to the wire for the regular-season title in the AL Central Division before settling for a wild-card berth, with Holland closing out the game that clinched the franchise’s first playoff berth in 29 seasons. And after the win over Oakland in the wild-card game, Holland didn’t have much time to celebrate advancement to the next round against the Los Angeles Angels.
“I had an hour or so with my teammates, and then I took a private jet to Greenville (South Carolina), because we thought inducing labor on my off day was the best chance for me to see Nash being born,” he said. He arrived in Asheville around 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 1. Son Nash Gregory Holland was born around 8:40 p.m., and the next day he flew out to Anaheim.
“It was definitely overwhelming and a little crazy,” said Lacey Holland ’10. “I was in the hospital booking his flight to California. The whole thing has been a whirlwind.” Greg Holland arrived midway through Game 1 of the series against the Angels, and an hour or so later picked up his first playoff save, a great accomplishment but the second-best experience he had those two days. “The birth of your first child trumps anything you will ever do athletically,” Holland said. “People tell you what the experience is like and that you don’t really get it until you witness it, and that’s true.”
Reprinted in edited format with permission of the Asheville Citizen-Times.