“I actually played with the pitcher,” Holland said. That was during a season at Chattahoochee, Ala., Valley CC shared with Auburn moundsman Dalton Rentz. As teammates, the only at-bat middle infielder Holland ever got against righty Rentz was in a fall scrimmage.
“But I played behind him the whole year so I knew his stuff.” Holland proved it Sunday afternoon in the second inning, when he was reunited with his former junior college comrade…on this time wearing a Mississippi State uniform.
“He went two changeups, then threw a ball,” said Holland. “Then he slipped me a little gift over the plate.” Rentz would likely call it something else. Because Holland turned on it for a no-doubt drive over rightfield. It was his first home run of the college career, for that matter the first time this year Holland has touched home plate to score anything.
“So it was kind of neat to hit one off him.”
Mississippi State would need more runs to win the game. Still it was Holland’s shot that snapped a 29-inning team scoreless streak. It also showed the junior infielder is making personal improvement mid-way of this transfer season. After the home run, Holland came back with an infield single and another base hit into the outfield.
Having come into the game with a .240 average, the 3-of-4 afternoon and one big bop was just what Holland hoped for. “I’ve been working with the coaches a lot here recently and just trying to simplify stuff, get more of a balanced and level swing more consistently. It’s nice to have that under my belt, and I’m going to try to keep it rolling.”
Fair or not folks expected John Holland would roll right into the lineup and order without a bump. He’d played as a true freshman at Florida State in 2012, after all, with 16 starts at DH and a couple of starts on the infield. He was of course part of the Seminole team that hosted, but didn’t play, the Bulldogs in the Tallahassee Regional, which was a step towards appearing in Omaha. There Holland played against Arizona, knocking a two-run double; and had two walks and two runs against Stoney Brook.
Injury cost him the entire 2013 season and resulted in a year at CVCC, where Holland was a juco All-American after hitting .406 and was the state Player of the Year. Most ballplayers who have had successful senior college debuts, in a major program, would resent such a detour.
Not Holland. “It helped not having the NCAA hunker down with all sorts of rules,” he explains. “You could practice every day if you wanted to. But there’s more of a drive to get there. You’re around 35 kids like that and there’s a lot more put into effort to get better.”
It’s a pretty unique career track Holland has followed. Unlike the norm for transfers, he went to the senior College World Series first and then to the junior college version second. While nothing compares to the Omaha experience, Holland says don’t downplay the juco championships in Colorado.
“It was awesome. That city thrives off that, the locals pick a team and cheer for you the whole tournament. It was a really cool experience.”
Holland did start on opening day with the Dogs, at second base. When 1B Wes Rea was hurt the first weekend, Holland started six times at first base. And as State kept seeking the right infield combo these past three weeks he has been in-and-out of lineups.
Now he seems to be settling back at the original spot, starting three times against Auburn with a 6-of-11 weekend at the plate and perfect fielding. Better than perfect in some ways as a couple of his eleven assists were just plain outstanding. Great as hitting the ball well is, Holland enjoys showing his range, glove, and arm.
Besides, “It’s always nice to help out the pitcher as well, to take pressure off them.” But the best pressure-reliever still can be a big hit. Such as Holland’s 10th-inning single to beat Western Kentucky two weeks ago.
“The walk-off was nice as well!”
“John has worked so hard on his swing and it’s gotten so much better,” Coach John Cohen said. “He’s just simplified some things and you can kind of see it coming, every day it’s a little bit more confident. He’s becoming that guy we thought he would be.”
That guy meaning a lock-down defender as well as hitter. Last week Cohen made one move to shore-up what he thought was soft up-the-middle coverage, moving Ryan Gridley from third base to shortstop. Now here is Holland going to his right to get hot grounders, turning back and making the strong throw to first.
“We knew that about (Holland) coming in,” Cohen said. “It’s the toughest play maybe on the entire infield. He does both very well and works on it every day, he makes plays like that in practice off live balls off the bat. It’s not an accident.”
Nor should it be. “It’s just baseball, it’s what I’ve done for goodness, 15 or 16 years,” Holland said. “So it’s just another game.”
It isn’t just another series for Mississippi State this week, though. The Bulldogs have drawn the early weekend assignment, hosting South Carolina beginning Thursday evening. Maybe changing days can help change State’s conference pace, too.
Because three regular weekends in, a 3-6 SEC record has put the Dogs behind the curve. Not too far behind the pack to be sure, since with just a couple of Division-leading exceptions everyone else is two games apart in either column. Mississippi State has shown enough starting pitching, and certainly the defense, to turn their campaign around.
If, that is, the offense can rise to the opportunity. Holland is a believer.
“It’s just a matter of time. There’s only so long you can hold us back as hitters.”