“I’m a little under the weather,” said Holland. “But hopefully I can turn it around.”
By which Holland means in time for opening weekend at Mississippi State. When the 2016 Diamond Dogs line-up around 4:30-ish Friday afternoon, Holland has every hope of keeping the starting four-spot same as last spring.
If, that is, his problematic back allows. The eldest member of the Bulldog infield has been sidelined for February scrimmaging. It’s not so serious, Holland insists.
“Just precautionary, I haven’t been practicing. If I really needed to, I could.” But why take chances with such a long season ahead, is the thinking, especially with what cold weather can do to a tight back anyway. Now come Friday when conditions are forecast for the 70s? And, when Holland feels the urgency to be on the field where he started 46 times last season including 28-straight games to run out the schedule?
Yeah. That will heat things up inside for sure. “But Coach has stressed do what I need to do to be myself, we don’t want a percentage of yourself. We want it all.”
Sensible. Because 100% of Holland is something Mississippi State can surely use, both in both the lineup and batting order. Or maybe looking at it another way, everyone wants to see what Holland is capable of if playing a full schedule the way he did down the 2015 stretch.
As a transfer junior, Holland’s .246 average did not jump-out much. But a closer look showed his .274 hitting in SEC play, a better walk/strikeout rate, even a little bit of extra-base pop. Holland was the rare Diamond Dog who was more productive in league season than overall and on the whole improved as the year ground-on.
Holland said he did not really feel a need to ‘settle in’ last season as it might look. “But that can always help when some stuff goes your way.”
“It was just simplifying. That’s a big thing that Coach (John) Cohen was working with me, just trying to simplify in every aspect. It’s baseball, it’s what we’ve played for years and years. So not trying to add anything that shouldn’t be added, just play the game and be myself.”
Working around recent back issues, Holland said he’s seen enough live preseason pitching to feel good at the plate again. Not that he had to wait for afternoon practices or scrimmages, though.
“They do a good job here getting us as many swings as possible, you can come to Palmeiro and hit at 3:00am if need be. But they do a good job here of as early as possible getting us in front of live pitchers.” Not even to swing, in fact, as Holland said Bulldog batters are allowed to ‘stand in’ when pitchers are throwing their bullpen sessions too.
Holland opened ’15 batting second in that order, before moving down into the 6-7-8 spots for most of the schedule. He would like another chance this final February. “In a perfect world I’ve always been a two-hole hitter.
“But goodness, if you’re one-through-nine that’s all that matters! So wherever need be, I’m the guy to be on base for the power to bring in.”
Power is a touchy topic around Dudy Noble Field for the last few years of course. (Holland did hit one out last year by the way, at Auburn). Fall ball and preseason scrimmaging haven’t endangered the drawn-in fencing much yet either, but contact does seem—and certainly sounds—improved. Bulldogs report more pop off the bats this preseason from sources such as Gavin Collins, Brent Rooker, redshirt Cole Gordon, and a few physical freshmen too.
“I think we’ve definitely re-loaded,” said Holland. “And more in the bats, for sure.”
In the field? In all the ’15 frustration it was just about ignored that Holland set a record. His .992 fielding average was the best-ever by a regular second-sacker at State, with only two errors total. Holland had a hand, and glove, in an infield that tallied 63 double-plays, meshing instantly with freshman shortstop Ryan Gridley.
“Me and Gridley, it sounds weird but I think it comes from personality. We’re both just goofy, happy-go-lucky, in one ear and out the other! Just the ease of mind, we both play similarly and like certain things the same. So a lot clicked and we didn’t have to really force anything.”
To be sure, not a few of those twin-killings had to be credited to the third member of the team. Now Wes Rea has moved on after holding down—literally—first base most of four seasons. It’s up to junior transfer Nate Lowe to, as they say, measure up now.
“It’s nice to have your back to first base and look over and are throwing it at a skyscraper!” Holland said. “So it’s nice to have someone the same stature over there. Nate has definitely come in and been the player we all heard of from last year.”
Along that line, folk are hearing about a newer Dog, one who is pushing veteran Holland right now. There are a variety of ways Mississippi State could get Hunter Stovall into games like catching and third base. But second base looks like the freshman’s primary position and seniority isn’t standing in his way.
“If need be if I’m not able to go day-one it will be a seamless transition,” Holland said. “I’ve tried to teach him everything I can, it didn’t seem I needed to teach him very much, I mean the dude can play!
“I think the middle infield, the whole infield as we move forward is stacked. I’d like to say you have your confidence in your position but with the level of talent they bring in there’s competition that can kick me out of that spot for sure.”
Or, allow Holland to ease himself back into the swing of things without stressing his recovery. State has a lot of pre-SEC games crammed into a few weekends, remember. And the weather won’t be as 70s-balmy all of them either. So Holland understands not risking February setbacks for a schedule that hopefully will go well into June.
Unlike last year, obviously. Then again Holland believes 2015 was an anomaly in every State sense. Even when so many May games got away, and in every sort of frustrating fashion, the makings of a competitive club were still there to a player’s eye. That’s what Holland saw, at least.
“The box scores didn’t show it but the fight was there, the camaraderie is still there. And I think we have the miniscule missing pieces that if we had some guys from this year for last year it would have been completely different.”
“I think we’re definitely more prepared. Going through the darkest of times I think the adversity really put a chip on a bunch of returners’ shoulders. I think we’ve overcome the adversity already before we’ve even faced anything. So I think that’s going to be a big factor.”
Tuesday, Cohen announced partial pitching plans for the opening weekend. Junior righthander Dakota Hudson will get the ball for Friday’s opener with Florida Atlantic; then lefthander Daniel Brown and righthander Austin Sexton will take care of the Saturday games against South Dakota State and FAU in an order to be determined.