ARLINGTON, Texas -- No matter what the Texas Rangers do at the trade deadline -- and you would think it's likely some starting pitcher ends up in Arlington to help fortify the rotation -- they need left-handed starter Derek Holland to step up and deliver like he did down the stretch in 2011 and in Game 4 of the World Series.
How Holland handled the pressure of that Fall Classic start was one of the reasons the club was willing to sign him to a long-term deal in spring training, making him a pillar of the rotation for the future. But Holland hasn't lived up to expectations so far in 2012. Perhaps Wednesday night is more evidence that he's beginning to get back to the pitcher everyone expected to see.
"I put more pressure on myself than anyone else," Holland said. "I know I haven't pitched the way I'm capable. I know I have to be better. I think the last four or five starts I'm starting to find that groove."
Holland admitted that Wednesday was his best overall start of the season. He held the Boston Red Sox, who came into the series as the highest-scoring offense in the league, to three runs on five hits in 7 2/3 innings.
He looked a lot more like the guy who went 10-1 with a 2.77 ERA in his final 15 regular-season starts in 2011 and then toed the rubber in one of the biggest games in franchise history and shut down the St. Louis Cardinals to even the World Series at two games apiece. He was efficient, getting out of innings quickly and letting his defense do the work. He pounded the strike zone, didn't allow the Red Sox to put together a big inning and pitched deep in the game.
"I do feel like I'm getting a feel for things now," Holland said. "Even in that one start against the Angels, I was throwing strikes, I just didn't make some key pitches."
That start, on July 20 in Anaheim, is his only non-quality start in his past four outings. Holland has a 3.86 ERA in July, by far his best month of the season. He feels good after missing nearly a month with left shoulder fatigue and is gaining confidence.
Roy Oswalt has noticed it, too. Almost as soon as Oswalt got to Arlington, Holland sought him out. He watched as Oswalt threw a bullpen session, and learned a few things he's applied to his own sessions. Oswalt saw that Holland's changeup could improve and offered advice about how, and when, to throw it.
"He's threw it earlier in the count tonight to mix things up," said Oswalt, who added that Holland was more efficient because hitters swinging early in the count turned over on some changeups for quick outs. "He's got a good fastball, but this doesn't allow hitters to sit on it. He commanded the zone and was good out there."
With Colby Lewis out for the season, the rest of the rotation has to share the load. Through one series with the Red Sox, they have. Scott Feldman, Martin Perez and Holland all stepped up with solid efforts.
But even a deadline acquisition won't change the fact that the club needs four starting pitchers in a seven-game series. And someone other than the No. 1 starter -- whether that's Matt Harrison or someone else -- has to win games for the Rangers to advance.
The plan from the start of the season was that Holland would be one of those pitchers who would get consistent, big, postseason starts. Now is the time when Holland has to start looking like a guy ready to do that, and Wednesday, just like a few of his other recent starts, was a step in that direction.
Harrison has been the club's most consistent pitcher in 2012, but last year was his first playoff action and he was 1-2 with a 5.40 ERA in five games (four starts). He lost both of his starts in the World Series, pitching a combined seven innings. He's clearly a better pitcher now, but he still has something to prove in the postseason. Yu Darvish has the stuff to dominate a lineup, but he's in his first year in the big leagues.
Of the young group, Holland is the one with the best record in October. He bounced back from a rough relief appearance in the 2010 World Series to go 2-0 with a 3.48 ERA in four playoff starts in 2011. That included the game that sits on top of his résumé, when he went 8 1/3 shutout innings against the Cardinals in Game 4 of the World Series, allowing just two hits at home to earn the win.
To Holland's credit, he's not living in the past.
"It's a new year, and I have to treat it that way," Holland said. "I know I have to go out there and throw strikes, get outs and keep my team in the game. That's what I'm trying to do."
He was successful on Wednesday. Now the Rangers need him to turn that into a consistent second half that carries over into the postseason so he can help them clear the only remaining hurdle they've got left.