Commentary

Derek Holland's command performance

Rangers lefty tames Cardinals, makes Game 4 his own with masterful two-hit gem

Updated: October 24, 2011, 4:40 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- If Game 4 of this World Series had been a Robert Redford production instead of a Bud Selig production, you know exactly what Act 1, Scene 1 would have looked like.

Derek Holland would have been bolting up from his bed at 3 a.m., screaming into the darkness -- trying to make the nightmare stop, trying to convince himself that those 14 consecutive home runs he'd just allowed to Albert Pujols were a dream … only a dream … only a really, really, really bad dream.

C'mon, isn't that the vision you would have expected the Texas Rangers' Game 4 starter to take to bed with him Saturday night? He was there in the dugout, watching his team give up 16 runs to those terrifying St. Louis Cardinals. He was there in the dugout, watching that scary Sir Albert do a five-hit, three-homer, six-RBI number on five different Rangers pitchers in the greatest offensive performance in World Series history.

So it's easy to imagine the 25-year-old guy who had to pitch the very next night tossing sleeplessly in his bed -- covers flying, eyes bulging -- as he imagined having to face that lineup -- and that certifiable baseball super-duper-star.

But friends, this isn't Hollywood. This is real life. And for men who play in the big leagues -- and, especially, for men who pitch in the big leagues, real life means "you can't think that way," said Derek Holland.

Well, you can't think that way and survive, anyway.

"The way I see it, that day's over," said the man who would lift the Rangers to the masterful 4-0 Game 4 triumph Sunday night that would even this World Series. "And as soon as that day's over, you get ready for tomorrow. The next day is a new day. You don't know how things are going to go."

And besides, said Derek Holland, on the biggest night of his career, "baseball is a crazy game."

Yep. Sure is. And we found out Sunday night just how crazy it is, too. Saturday was Albert Pujols' show. Sunday was Derek Holland's show.

So a guy who got five hits Saturday (Pujols) got no hits Sunday. A team that scored 16 runs Saturday scored zero runs Sunday. A pitcher who had an 8.59 ERA in two starts in the American League Championship Series spun 8 1/3 spectacular two-hit shutout innings Sunday.

And a World Series that seemed to be tilting one way Saturday then tilted right back in the other direction Sunday. You might want to get used to it, because this World Series looks as though it might be turning into a real live October classic.

[+] EnlargeDerek Holland
Tony Gutierrez/Pool Photo/US PresswireDerek Holland only allowed one baserunner to reach second base and had five 1-2-3 innings.

"Hey, you know what?" Texas Ian Kinsler said. "I think it already is."

He might be right. And we can thank the man who pitched for the Rangers on Sunday almost as profusely as we were thanking the man who rocketed those 1,200 feet worth of home runs Saturday.

There was nothing the Texas Rangers needed more Sunday night than a starting pitcher who could go out there and restore a little order to these proceedings and dignity to his pitching staff. And that's exactly what they got.

"That was a special performance," Kinsler said. "That was probably the best pitching performance this organization has ever seen."

Uh, wait a second. The best pitching performance this organization has ever seen? We might want to mention that the world-famous Nolan Ryan once threw two no-hitters for this organization, striking out 16 in one and 14 in the other. So it's not as though there's not a little competition for those best-performance honors.

"Yeah, but who's done that in the World Series?" Kinsler asked.

Hmmm, excellent point.

Now here's another: Only once in the history of the World Series had any pitcher done what Holland did Sunday -- throw eight-plus shutout innings against a team that had scored 15 runs or more the night before. That was in 1993, when a young up-and-comer named Curt Schilling twirled a five-hit, 147-pitch shutout for the Philadelphia Phillies against a Toronto Blue Jays team that had won a 15-14 game just the night before.

That was a game, and a performance, that put Schilling on America's radar screen. And it wouldn't shock anybody in the Rangers' organization if this was a night that had precisely the same impact on the career of Derek L. Holland, a rising left-handed star whose time may have finally arrived.

"You saw it," said his friend and mentor, C.J. Wilson. "This guy has got better potential as a starter than the rest of us. You saw the radar gun tonight, right? He throws 97. He can snap a curveball off at 74. He can throw pitches in between. He's got phenomenal stuff. It's just a matter of realizing it. Realizing potential is one of the hardest things to do in sports."

Now, just because Holland had a remarkable night at the World Series amphitheater doesn't mean he's completed the journey. But it's another huge milepost on the road to confidence and consistency. And at this point, that's all that's standing between this man and major stardom.

"He showed the world what he's capable of doing," said his manager, Ron Washington. "Now we've just got to find that capability every time he takes the baseball. Not throwing a shutout. Just going out there and keeping himself in the game and staying under control and executing his pitches the way he did tonight."

On this night, there wasn't a pitch in Holland's repertoire that he didn't execute. In between smokeballs, he threw 44 off-speed pitches -- 30 of them for strikes. He threw 23 curveballs, his highest total in two years. He got four of his seven strikeouts on sliders. And he threw 11 first-pitch breaking balls. Not one got put in play.

Lance Berkman got two hits off him Sunday. The rest of the Cardinals' lineup went 0-for-24. Only one runner reached second base while he was out there, and that was Berkman in the second inning. He doubled with one out and never budged.

If Holland had gotten two more outs in the ninth, he would have become the first American League pitcher to throw a World Series shutout since Jack Morris in Game 7, 1991 … and the first pitcher in either league to throw a two-hit shutout since Nelson Briles in 1971 … and just the third left-hander in history to fire a two-hit shutout in any World Series game. The others are Whitey Ford (1961) and Warren Spahn (1958) -- and they're both in the Hall of Fame.

But even though Holland didn't get those last two outs, he's still just the fourth pitcher in the last 40 years to knock off at least eight shutout innings, while allowing no more than two hits, in a World Series game. We're guessing you've heard of the others: Roger Clemens (2000 Yankees), Tom Glavine (1995 Braves) and Kenny Rogers (2006 Tigers).

Oh, and one more thing: Who's the last pitcher to pitch a World Series game like that who was as young as Holland? How about Waite Hoyt -- in 1921.

So this was special. As special as it gets.

But when some of the names above were recited to Holland afterward, he wasn't sure he even wanted to hear his name added to the magical names on that list.

"I don't like to think of those things," he said. "I want to make sure that I stay who I am. I want to be humble. I don't want to do anything that will change my approach.

"It's a great list to be on there," he went on. "To hear those names, it's just unbelievable. But I've got to continue to work hard. I want to be one of those guys. I want to make a name for myself as well."

Well, if he does, he'll have lots of people to thank. His pitching coach, Mike Maddux, is one of the best in the business. His friend C.J. is a guy he talks to between every inning of every game he pitches. And then there's his manager.

The outside world may have spent much of October taking pot shots at Washington -- for lineups that don't always seem totally thought through, for game management that can vary from game to game or inning to inning. But inside the Rangers' universe, it's clear how much this manager cares about his players and how much they care about him.

And there is no better example than his relationship with Holland.

Before his starting pitcher headed up the dugout steps Sunday, Washington stopped him, grabbed him by the shoulders and let him know exactly what he thought he was capable of doing on this night. Then Washington slapped his pitcher on the cheek and pointed him toward the World Series stage.

"Don't worry," Holland chuckled afterward. "He hits me like a girl. For the most part, he's always hitting me. But it's not like I'm getting abused by my manager. It's just something we've done. It's like a handshake that we have."

[+] EnlargeDerek Holland
AP Photo/Paul SancyaDerek Holland tips his hat to the crowd after being pulled from the game in the ninth inning.

But these two men have also had countless man-to-man conversations over these past couple of years. Most of them take place behind closed doors. But some have taken place right out there on the mound, where thousands -- even millions -- of people are watching. And some of those conversations haven't been real pleasant, because Washington expects more out of Holland than he sometimes gets.

On this night, though, when the manager headed for the mound, they were about to share a special moment. There was one out in the ninth inning. Holland had just issued only his second walk of the game. And Washington was heading in his direction for one reason -- to take his pitcher out and let him soak in the roars of a hometown crowd.

Little did the manager know his starting pitcher wouldn't go peacefully.

"He was begging," Washington would say later. "I just told him, 'If you want to stay out here, get on your knees [and beg].'"

"I was definitely not going to do that," Holland retorted. "I was maybe trying to rub my mustache on him or something, see if that worked. I was trying like crazy to stay out there, but it's me against Wash. …

"I was doing everything I could," Holland went on. "I said, 'Look, Wash, I've made it this far. I've been working my butt off. Let me get this.' But he's like, 'No, you ain't gonna do that, son. You've gotta get outta here. Just listen to the crowd on the way out. Enjoy that, son.' And out I went."

Yeah, out he went, all right. But the cool thing about games like this is that, when you pitch the game of your lifetime in the World Freaking Series, you may leave the mound -- but you never disappear.

So recognize what this was that took place on this mound in Arlington, Texas, because games like this one don't come along every day, or every October.

A 25-year-old left-hander named Derek Holland threw 8 1/3 shutout innings in the most important game of his life. And in doing that, he didn't just alter the course of this World Series. He also may have altered the course of his career -- forever.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com