Royals Rundown: Holland much closer to his old self in return to Kansas City

Todd Fertig
Special to The Capital-Journal
Current Royals manager Mike Matheny (22) pulls relief pitcher Greg Holland (56) from the game in May 2018 during their fateful previous stints with the St. Louis Cardinals. Both are looking for redemption now with the Kansas City Royals, where Holland appears to have returned to the All-Star closer form that helped guide the Royals to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 2015.

Greg Holland feels like he owes something to Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny. Matheny may wind up indebted to Holland if the 34-year-old relief pitcher can keep up his current pace.

Entering the weekend, the Royals’ closer had a string of 11-straight appearances without giving up a run. He has picked a win and four saves during the streak.

After the club traded Trevor Rosenthal on Aug. 29, Holland stepped back into the position of Kansas City’s closer that he held years ago. Rosenthal had been nearly unhittable in the closer role, and Holland has maintained the standard.

Such has not always been the case with Holland and Matheny.

After helping the Royals to back-to-back World Series as a part of the HDH (Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Holland) relief triumvirate, Holland wound up in Matheny’s bullpen in St. Louis in 2018. Expecting to contend for the playoffs, the Cardinals signed Holland to a mountainous $14 million contract to finish off games.

Holland let Matheny down, big time. In fact, Holland was so bad, the Cardinals released him before the season even ended, eating the contract and missing the playoffs. By that time, Matheny had already been fired by St. Louis for not living up to expectations, and Holland was a big part of the problem.

Holland entered Matheny’s office in spring training in 2020 and promised he would make it up to the Royals’ new manager.

“That conversation surprised me,” Matheny said. “I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a conversation with a player thinking that they owed me anything. But he truly meant it. That was something that weighed on him. He mentioned it when I first called him as soon as we were able to sign him. He said ‘Listen, I owe you some big outs.’

“I was like ‘Man, this is a home for you. Just come back and do what you do.’ ”

What Holland is doing is pretty phenomenal. He entered the weekend leading the American League in appearances. Pitching in a variety of roles, Holland has struck out more than one batter per inning while allowing fewer than one base runner per inning. Holland has been integral to the team’s recent hot stretch.

Matheny has a second chance in Kansas City, and as he tries to rebuild the Royals, he can count on Holland now.

“It’s been fun to watch,” Matheny said. “Because (the debacle in St. Louis) was a couple of years ago, and to watch how much better his stuff is now than (in 2018) shows the amount of work that he’s put in.”

Holland is going good now. But Royals fans won’t forget how good he once was.

Holland was actually at his best in the 2013 season, when the Royals finally shed the “Losers” mantle to challenge for a playoff spot. As a 27-year-old in his first year as a closer, Holland was nearly inerrant with his throws. He struck out 103 batters in just 67 innings en route to a ridiculous .866 WHIP. Holland posted a 1.21 ERA and saved 47 contests that season.

In the Royals’ dramatic race to the World Series in 2014, Holland continued his nearly perfect ways. He saved 46 games, with a 1.44 ERA during the regular season. Then he gave up just one earned run in 11 appearances during the wild playoff run.

But all those high-leverage appearances wore the North Carolina native out. He hit a wall in 2015, and when the Royals finally won the World Series, Holland was on the disabled list.

Holland’s career has been a roller-coaster ride ever since, highlighted by big contracts but plagued by arm troubles and inconsistent performances. Saddled with the expectations that come along with a one-year, $14 million contract, Holland bottomed out in St. Louis. Matheny was canned as the Cardinals tried everything to right their ship. Holland was cut in the process.

As the roller coaster ride continued, Holland was surprisingly good after being picked up by the Washington Nationals for the second half of 2018. But he was subpar as the Arizona Diamondbacks closer in 2019, and was once again cut loose.

A free agent in need of a place to recover his self-confidence, Holland was reunited with Matheny in Kansas City. A spot on the roster wasn’t guaranteed, but Holland built himself back up in spring training and accepted a role in the middle innings. Then, though the rest of the club started slowly, the bullpen asserted itself as one of the best in the game.

Holland was teamed with Josh Staumont and Scott Barlow to form a dominant set-up crew for Rosenthal. Matheny praised Holland for his willingness to accept any role and mentor the young pitching staff.

“He’s been just special for this club,” Matheny said. “To have that piece down in that bullpen, especially with as many young arms as we have, be they starters or relievers, to have a guy down there talking from experience – they see his picture all over the complex in celebrations of championships – he’s consistently talking about what it takes to be a championship player. The commitment, the sacrifice …

“(Holland demonstrates) how to be a guy who gets up two times in a game and then see someone else come in. Or how to handle taking the ball three games in a row, or five out of seven. Or how to prepare when you don’t know if you’ll be pitching in the fifth or pitching to finish a game.”

The Royals are banking on rookie starting pitchers like Brady Singer, Kris Bubic and Carlos Hernandez, and several greenhorn relievers like Staumont, Tyler Zuber, Jake Newberry and Kyle Zimmer. Holland knows what it takes to become a champion in Kansas City, and he is sharing his knowledge with the new group.

“He talks to the other guys, asking ‘What do you need to do to help this team become better?’ ” Matheny said. “That voice, with the history, plus what he’s doing now, is so powerful. He is speeding up the development of every single guy on the staff.”