Thursday SEC Tournament Notebook

HOLDER-ING ON: Not that he would have minded throwing again. After all, that would have meant his team had a win for the saving. But Jonathan Holder will take a day without pitching as an opportunity to be fresh for the next save assignment. And given the rookie's record so far, when Holder takes the hill it ought to be game over.

Holder is one of the best stories of Mississippi State's 2012 season so far. The freshman righthander has emerged as just about as sure a thing as the game can have, a reliever with an unblemished ERA. Literally. In 21 appearances Holder has not given up a run. Neither earned or unearned variety. In his 25.1 official innings no opponent has crossed the plate charged to his account.

For that matter few enough even reach, with a .167 average-against. Holder has allowed just 14 hits and five walks, and not plunked anyone at all. Any of these numbers would assure all-freshman status, but it is that scoreless streak which stands out. A stretch, by the way, which ties the Mississippi State record set way back in 1988 by Bobby Reed.

John Cohen played alongside Reed of course. What Holder is doing still impresses the coach to no end. "If you had told me in fall that Holder to this point would not give up a run, I would have bet significant cash he would have," Cohen said. "He's been phenomenal, it's not an accident."

Not with what Holder brings to the relief-table. Mindset, especially. "I'm thinking go in and pump the zone, mix up pitches, in and out, curveballs and fastballs," Holder said.

There is some irony to Holder's sudden ascension to Dog door-slammer. Oh, State knew the Gulfport native had tools, and expected instant aid in a relief role. But when senior closer Caleb Reed went through some mid-season struggles finishing folk off—mostly because after last year opponents have a ‘book' on him—using a hard-throwing rookie seemed a good way to toss a, well, a curve.

It's worked out very well to say the least. Moreover, Holder is getting best-possible coaching from a fine source how to handle late-inning situations. Reed is mentoring him directly. "He really gives me a lot of advice, and really helps me to be not as nervous or more relaxed when I get in the game in the ninth. Because he's been there, in multiple situations a lot of times."

A year ago Reed collected 12 saves, one shy of tying the program season record. Now here Holder has saved eight wins, with more opportunities ahead in tournament time. Holder already has the most saves by a true State freshman since Jay Powell scored ten in 1993. But even Powell and Reed allowed runs; so far Holder hasn't.

Which begs the question, is he treating this streak like a no-hitter or something. You know, not mentioning it in the dugout or locker room or avoiding the subject with reporters?

"No. Not a bit! People mention it all the time. You know, even if I give up a run now—which I don't want to because it's not my job to give up runs!—I'm happy to have made it this far. It's nice." So, no fear of jinxing anything?

"No, I mean it's spoken around. It just doesn't really cross my mind."

What has, is the need to keep improving. After all, SEC hitters are compiling a book on Holder now. Sorry guys, but this is one freshman sure to progress in coming years. Take just what he has done the past month, as proven in the SEC Tournament victory over LSU. It was a 3-2 lead going to the ninth, and consecutive lefthanded Tigers were due up. Even in April, the coaches would not have sent righty Holder to challenge SEC south-swingers.

Now? No problem, which he proved with two fast outs en route to the #8 save. "I've been really working on a two-seam with Coach Thompson during the week. It's an effective pitch to throw to lefties. Before all I was throwing was four-seams and curveballs, and now I've added a two-seam and changeup. I'm a little bit more better-matched now than I was a few weeks ago."

MASKED MEN: Between regular-season series and summer league teams, SEC baseball players get to know most of their league playing peers. Which makes Hoover something of a reunion. But in Mitch Slauter's case many of this week's familiar faces are behind masks. No, not his catching counterparts; the men in blue. The Bulldog backstop is being reunited daily with SEC umpires who Slauter established working relationships with during the regular season. And yes, the junior catcher said, it is work. Part of his job.

"I just try to be as friendly as possible to them, with as much respect. And just make it fun for them as well as me." Yes, you read rightly. Slauter said fun. "I mean, no one wants to be back there behind the plate with a guy that hates you. And he's not wanting to be a burden on you. I try to have a good time back there and enjoy ourselves."

Easier said than done some games, of course. But as a first-year guy in this conference, juco transfer Slauter has tried to get off on the best foot with SEC umps no matter their temperments. Or strike zones. Or lack thereof. He wisely consults with the day's plate-man, too.

"I'll ask them if they want certain ways for me to leave a pitch, if they want me to stick it longer. Just any thing I can to make it a strike, and any way I can to make their job easier back there." And in-turn his own task of getting Bulldog pitchers through their own innings. Not to mention Slauter's coaches who have harder times controlling dugout tempers.

Playing peacemaker between such strong-willed folk as a head coach and umpire can make moderating Middle East squabbles seem positively genial. But somebody has to be the insulator when such sparks start flying.

"That's me trying to keep my composure at all times. You know, keep the guy on the mound under control, at the same time communicate with my coaches. And keeping a good relationship with the umpires at the same time."

Which Slauter managed most of the regular season…right up to the final series when both he and pitcher Luis Pollorena thought they'd thrown a strike-three past the Kentucky hitter. The umpire not only disagreed but ruled the batter was nicked. Slauter exploded out of his crouch in open frustration, which did not set well with big blue.

"He wasn't very happy with me at the moment. But we got over it. You know, we did what we could and we made up afterwards. It was all good after that." Especially as State won the game. Just add it to all that Slauter has learned in his first year going around this league and level of the game.

"I've had umpires that sometimes get a little big-headed. And you have certain umpires that, same as anybody, can be very egotistical, not as willing to work with you. And it's sometimes just hard to get along with them." But, like a seasoned catcher should, Slauter puts his best face forward, settles pitcher and coaches down fast as possible, and moves on to the next pitch call.

And as for trying to show-up the umpire, nope. Because after all, Slauter reminds…he will have to work another game, another day, with that same masked man. "Exactly. And you have to get over it and do what you can to make the best of it."

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