ARLINGTON, Texas – The man everyone calls Hoggy brandished the blade and started talking about war. Because this is Texas, Derek Holland(notes) has learned to accept such things as a tradeoff for no state income tax. If Richard "Hoggy" Price, the Texas Rangers' clubhouse manager, wants to wield a letter opener shaped like a dagger, he will do so. If he hands it to Holland and urges him to slaughter the St. Louis Cardinals, well, Holland will promise to oblige. And only when he leaves Hoggy's office can Holland remind himself he is at a ball yard, not a prison yard, and no matter how awesome Albert Pujols(notes) is, even Hoggy wouldn't stoop to shivving him.
"I was like, wow, a letter opener," Holland said. "That's great. It's going to motivate me big time."
Holland chuckled. It was 30 minutes after he'd pitched the game of his life, one that saved the Rangers' season and one that he attributed approximately 0.00 percent to the shiny blade that sat on the left side of his locker. Holland, a maddeningly inconsistent left-hander, had become the first pitcher since Josh Beckett(notes) in 2003 to throw at least 8 1/3 shutout innings in the World Series, and he was trying to come to terms with the pitchers before him who had done the same: Randy Johnson(notes), Andy Pettitte(notes), Curt Schilling, Jack Morris and a cadre of Cy Young voting luminaries: Dave Stewart (second), Orel Hershiser (won), Bret Saberhagen (won) and John Tudor (second).
Holland was nothing more than a 25-year-old who had bombed in his first two outings this postseason after walking three straight batters and not recording an out in one World Series game last year. And he took a Cardinals lineup that the previous night scored 16 runs and neutered it during a 4-0 victory in Game 4, turning the series into a best-of-three free-for-all and ensuring it would return to St. Louis.
Aside from two Lance Berkman(notes) hits, the Cardinals mustered nothing. Combined, the remainder of the lineup went 0 for 26, including an 0-for-4 evening from Pujols, who the previous night smashed three home runs in arguably the greatest individual performance ever in the World Series. Holland ensured that didn't happen again. He worked with a 95-mph fastball, the third fastest among lefty starters in the major leagues, and showed Pujols his curveball, slider and changeup. Pujols only was going to beat him on a mistake, and Holland didn't make any.
Which is a rarity. When Holland walks to the mound, the Rangers always wonder whether they're getting Good Derek or Bad Derek. Good Derek is an ace who threw four shutouts this season. Bad Derek produces bombs like M. Night Shyamalan. It's why Rangers manager Ron Washington has taken to a particular sort of motivation that might not work on anyone other than Holland – and, thankfully, does not involve weaponry.
Washington grabs Holland's shoulders, leans in and starts jabbering. Holland usually understands the thrust of his manager's speech, if not every word. Before Game 4, Washington urged Holland not to seek vengeance for the Game 3 blowout via a beanball war, went over the game plan and slapped Holland.
Yes, slapped him.
"He was hitting me like a girl," Holland said.
It was more a love pat than something that precedes an appletini to the face.
"He's always hitting me," Holland said. "It sounds bad, like I'm getting abused by my manager. It's just something we've done. It's like a handshake we have."
As much as Washington can hate Bad Derek, does he ever love Good Derek. When Holland is commanding his fastball, he becomes the best pitcher on the Rangers' staff, better even than All-Star C.J. Wilson(notes). As Wilson pointed out, he knew Holland was going well based on his performance during 1-1 counts. Over a dozen of those, Holland threw a strike 10 times. Going into the ninth inning, he had 69 strikes in 105 pitches.
After some hesitation, Washington let Holland jog to the mound to aim for a shutout. Nick Punto(notes) grounded out, but Holland walked Rafael Furcal(notes), just his second walk against seven strikeouts. Washington headed toward the mound. He and Holland were about to engage in another tête-à-tête.
Now, the exact dialogue of that conversation likely was lost amid the 51,539 at Rangers Ballpark urging Washington to allow Holland, then on his 116th pitch, to continue. Holland, too, urged his manager to reconsider.
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"I tried," Holland said. "He was like, 'Nope, you ain't going out there, son. You ain't gonna come out there.' I said, 'C'mon, Wash, let me go. I'm gonna try to get a double play out of this. I'm going to do everything I can.' "
To which Washington replied that if Holland wanted to stay out there, he'd have to get on his knees and grovel.
"He walked off the mound," Washington said.
The ovation Washington promised came to fruition. The baby of the rotation, whose goofy mugging for Fox cameras set him up for ridicule when he bombed out of his division series start, hadn't matured as much as he had showed his potential if ever he can find the key to Good Derek. It's not the horrendous mustache he continues, against all good judgment, to let fester on his upper lip. Nor, sadly, is it Hoggy's letter opener of doom.
Perhaps it's something as simple as calming down, which, for Holland, has been more difficult than it sounds. He was a pacer. In between innings, he would walk up and down the dugout, unable to station himself. Only after his division series start did the Rangers devise a plan for Holland: In between innings, he walks up the Rangers' tunnel and sits in a small room with a couple chairs and a TV – and without a dunce cap. Call it solitude, call it quiet time – call it whatever, because Holland believes it helps.
"He just worked us over," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said, "and shut us down."
Holland tries to treat every start like a boxing match, and so his time in the room is like that between rounds, when he can formulate a plan and fix weaknesses and consult with his pitching coach, Mike Maddux.
"He's not there with an ice bucket, wiping my face or anything like that," Holland said. "But he does come in there. He doesn't really say too much. He doesn't want to bother you if things are going good."
And things were good Sunday, great even, far better than they could have been. The Rangers used up their bullpen in Game 3, and had Bad Derek shown up Washington might have needed to fetch owner Nolan Ryan from the stands and ask him for an inning or two. Instead, the Rangers continued their streak of avoiding consecutive losses that will stretch beyond two months, a remarkable bit of consistency from a team that now needs to string together back-to-back wins.
Because if Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter triumphs Monday in Game 5 and St. Louis heads home with a 3-2 advantage and two chances to clinch at home, it drastically reduces the likelihood of Texas' first World Series title. Either way, Holland said he'll be available out of the bullpen by Game 6, 'stache intact, fastball even more amped up for short stints, ready once again to duel with Pujols.
No letter openers necessary.
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- Ron Washington