Pitcher of the Year

KODAK, Tenn. – Each year since 2004, a year when a 20-year-old first baseman named Brian Dopirak slugged almost 40 home runs in a single season at the Class Low-A level, the Cubs have recognized quality play in their farm system with annual awards for Player and Pitcher of the Year.

Those awards are typically announced each September during the final regular season home series of the year, and the Cubs actually started the tradition a little later than some teams. The Arizona Diamondbacks, for instance, began the process as far back as 1996.

Mark Holliman, whose 2007 summer highlights include a no-hitter in the regular season and a playoff win to start the postseason, would be a solid choice for this year's Pitcher of the Year by the organization. Holliman was named the InsideTheIvy.com 2007 Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year in a press release announced Friday.

Holliman led the Cubs' farm system with 161 1/3 innings pitched during the regular season this year. He made 26 starts and one appearance out of the bullpen, finishing 10-11 with an ERA of 3.57.

Holliman started the season 6-1 with a 1.17 ERA through late May. By late June, he was 7-5 with a 2.49 ERA.

"He started out pitching very well and then dropped off a little bit in his pitching, but more so than anything, we just stopped scoring runs for him and he pitched in a little bit of bad luck," Dennis Lewallyn, Holliman's pitching coach at Double-A Tennessee this season, said recently.

"He's been our most consistent starter," Lewallyn had said. "He's had a real solid year. He also swings the bat pretty well and he fields his position."

Holliman hit .229 this season with two home runs and seven RBI. He hit a home run on June 21 in the same game that saw him throw a seven-inning no-hitter against the Huntsville Stars in the first game of a double-header.

He would later throw the first pitch for the Smokies in the Southern League playoffs (Tennessee secured the wild card spot on the next to last day of the regular season) and got a 6-3 win in Huntsville to open the playoffs.

Holliman went seven innings and notched six strikeouts to one walk, allowing two runs on five hits.

His challenge at midseason was to adjust from his tremendous success early on to then falling short in the win column.

"The season started out so great for me that it seemed like anything besides what I was doing at the beginning of the year was failure," Holliman said in retrospect of the year he had. "It was tough to deal with hitting the struggles in the middle of the season, because the beginning of the season was so strong for me and everything was going great.

"I've had a pretty good season overall," Holliman said as his season was winding down. "There have been some great memories from this season, especially the no-hitter. But just being able to go out there every day and get through six innings and give my team a chance to win has been my main goal."

Casey McGehee and Chris Robinson both caught Holliman this season. McGehee was sent to Tennessee in early May from Triple-A Iowa to learn the ropes at catcher while also continuing to get his reps at third base.

McGehee credited Robinson for helping Holliman throughout the season.

"Robbie got him off to the good start," said McGehee. "For me to come in and have to learn the position and learn the pitching staff, I really relied on Robbie early in the season to help me to not ask pitchers to do something they were not comfortable doing or were not having success doing."

McGehee agreed with Lewallyn in that Holliman's win-loss record could have been a lot better if the Smokies had mustered a little more offense in some of his mid-season starts.

"I think consistently start in and start out, every time Mark goes out there you know what you're going to get," McGehee said prior to the end of the season.

"I think that he does a great job of keeping our team in games, even in games that he doesn't have his best stuff. Some of his losses have been hard-luck losses. He pitched plenty well enough to have won some more games than we've won for him."

Holliman was a steady performer this year, but Lewallyn said the right-hander, who turns 24 on Sept. 19, has to develop a consistent mindset on the mound before he will be ready for the big leagues.

"He tends to get a little complacent in his starts in that he will not throw as hard as he can right away until he gets in trouble," Lewallyn said. "We've talked about it and addressed it, and he's getting better at it. He's got to get that consistency. How long that takes, it's up to him."

In terms of progressing through the Cubs organization, though, both Lewallyn and Holliman are pleased with the development.

Holliman was selected in the third round of the 2005 draft out of Ole Miss. He made his pro debut the following summer at Class-A Daytona and started the 2007 season in Tennessee, where he spent all summer.

"When you start out, your whole idea is to work your way up until you get to the big leagues," Holliman said. "As long as you can keep seeing progress and you're not seeing yourself go backwards, it's always a good thing."

Holliman is not overly emotional and he keeps his cool on the mound, whether he's got a no-hitter going or he's having trouble locating the strike zone.

"He's one of the toughest guys to read because he's so even-keel all the time," Lewallyn said. "You never know whether he's upset about something. He works hard and does everything he needs to do."

Holliman has good reasons to be so even-keel. He was married to his high school sweetheart, Jessica, in January of 2006. The two spent the summer together in Eastern Tennessee before returning to Germantown on the other side of the state, where she teaches pre-kindergarten at a Catholic school.

The Holliman's met at Germantown High School where Mark won a state baseball title in 2001, and then attended Ole Miss together where Holliman was an All-SEC pitcher and a Friday night starter.

Prior to selecting Holliman with their third-round pick in 2005, the Cubs selected him in the 41st round of the 2002 draft straight out of high school.

"For me, it was a tough decision, but I'm glad I made the decision to go to college," Holliman said. "I loved every minute of it and I've still got people who follow me because they knew me at Ole Miss, so there's a great fan base coming from there."

The University of Tennessee is an SEC rival of Ole Miss, of course. But Holliman had come to embrace the ubiquitous song "Rocky Top," which the Smokies played in the ninth inning when the team was behind to fire up the fans this season. The Vols play right next door in Knoxville.

"It's a lot different now," Holliman said of the song, every bit as endearing to Tennessee fans as it is irritating to those who aren't.

"It used to be when you heard it, you never wanted to hear it because it was your rival playing it. The fans really get into it and they start yelling and screaming. It creates a neat atmosphere."

Holliman also liked playing in his native state, even if it was all the way across from his native Memphis area.

"My wife hardly missed a game during the summer. It's been a fun ride together. We've been through everything," he said.

It's a journey that Holliman wants to take to Chicago.

For now, he is still adjusting to playing 140 games a year in the minor league season and accepting the assorted ups and downs that are inevitable for a pitcher at any level.

"The biggest thing about conquering the game of baseball is the mental aspect of it," says Holliman. "You can't let the small things affect you and when things aren't going right, you've got to know what to do to fix them. Sometimes there is just stuff you can't control.

"The main thing is being able to put that stuff behind you and not let it affect how you're playing the game. That's one of the biggest aspects to being able to be consistent throughout the year."

To help with that, Holliman leaned on Lewallyn this past season and says that a solid pitching coach is invaluable, especially in the minor leagues when a new season often means a new team and thus a new coach.

"It can mean a whole lot," Holliman said of his relationship with Lewallyn, who is in his first year as a pitching coach in the Cubs' system. "He's done wonders for me this year, being able to have a coach that sees stuff that you're doing and recognizes the way that your body moves. The biggest thing about having a pitching coach like Dennis is when you get done with your starts, he can evaluate it and he really knows in comparison to what you did when you did good and when you didn't do as well.

"So you can go back and learn a lot of things, especially from a guy who has made it to the big leagues. He knows what it takes so you've always got to listen. He's one of those guys you look up to and want to listen to and pay attention to what he's saying because he knows what's going on."

Holliman could be ready for a promotion next spring, or he could return to Double-A and Tennessee. The competition among the pitchers is good for the Cubs organization, Lewallyn said.

"He could compete in Triple-A," Lewallyn said. "But it's going to depend on who comes back to the organization as to how many Triple-A jobs are available next year, which is good for us. Competition is a good thing.

"I went through the non-competition years (as a coach) in the Diamondbacks organization. Guys were kind of moved along without having had any success. I'm a firm believer in competition. I think you've got to go out there and earn the next level," Lewallyn said.

Now that his season is finished, Holliman will get some rest and then begin preparations for next year – a process he likened to starting from scratch.

"We'll start off like we're starting all over again," Holliman said. "You'll take a little time off to give your arm a break, but then you'll start playing catch and trying to build that arm strength back up. The main thing is getting all your work done and staying healthy during the off-season so you can make it through the whole season because it's definitely a long season."

On the whole, Holliman sums up his recent summer in Double-A as a learning experience. He was part of breaking in a new catcher. He put together a nice win streak to start the season and then threw a no-hitter, endured a losing streak and got the Smokies their first playoff wins since becoming affiliated with the Cubs a year ago.

He hopes all of that will pay dividends on down the road.

"Every time you go out there, you usually learn something different," said Holliman. "That's the whole idea of being in the minor leagues; being able to go out and learn from what you've done in your past starts and being able to use that to benefit yourself and to get better.

"Every time out, it's been something different, but I've really learned a lot this year and I'll hopefully carry that into next year," he added.

All Tennessee players know that a possible promotion to Chicago is at least in sight once they get to the Double-A level. This past season, three pitchers (Billy Petrick, Sean Gallagher and Kevin Hart) and two outfielders (Jake Fox and Sam Fuld) logged time with the parent club.

"Just to get to Chicago, that's the ultimate goal," Holliman said. "You pull for all your guys. This year, we had a few guys called up. It's a neat feeling. It's exciting."

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