STARKVILLE — Jonathan Holder had to make a lot of choices in his first semester at Mississippi State University.
Some of those decisions included what classes to take, where would he eat on and off campus, and how best to enjoy his free time away from academics and athletics.
One of the decisions the freshman Holder made in that time has made his life less complicated, and now MSU is seeing the results.
“During the course of the fall, it was such a tough decision to make, but I needed to put all of my energy into long tossing and bullpens with the coaching staff,” Holder said. “I needed to work on pitches and make sure I was trying to be the best I could be at a certain skill set at this level.”
The work Holder put in early this year has helped him regain the form that made him a coveted prospect. On Saturday, the 6-foot-2, 247-pound pitcher worked two scoreless innings and recorded his second save of the weekend in a 3-2 victory against the University of Alabama.
That effort came less than 24 hours after he came in and got a critical double play ground out in a 3-1 win.
“You talk about a kid that doesn’t get sped up,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “An 18-year-old freshman in the best league in America and he does a phenomenal job. We got to get him a little more opportunities like that. That’s exactly what we wanted to do in the ninth.”
Holder may get another opportunity at some work when No. 25 Mississippi State (29-18) meets Mississippi Valley State (14-35) at 6:30 tonight at Dudy Noble Field.
The MSU-MVSU game, originally set to be played April 3, was canceled due to weather concerns. Season ticket patrons can use tickets from MSU’s two rain-out games (home games vs. Alabama A&M or Mississippi Valley State) for admission to Tuesday night’s game.
Including early-season 13-5 and 5-1 wins over the Delta Devils, the Bulldogs have built up a 22-0 all-time series lead against MVSU.
Holder wasn’t always sure if he would end up in that role. He also wasn’t sure how he was going to get there. When he walked into Cohen’s office after the fall season, he realized he needed to re-focus his attention on pitching.
“He had about as miserable fall sessions as you can have with low velocity,” Cohen said. “The breaking ball I saw and (MSU assistant coach) Lane Burroughs saw in his high school career had just vanished. It got to a point that we’re all looking at each other saying, ‘What happened?'”
Holder’s talk with the coaches forced him to work hard over Christmas break to save his spot on the MSU team. He returned to Starkville a different player, the one the MSU coaches recruited out of Gulfport High School.
“He went home in January and threw pens and long tossed so many that we got back to campus he was a different athlete,” Cohen said.
“That breaking ball re-appeared and suddenly I’m looking at a confident and poised young man. Not hitting has really helped him because his attention needed to be on just one thing.”
Holder earned First-Team Mississippi Association of Coaches All-State honors after hitting .383 with eight doubles, eight home runs, and 19 RBIs, but he caught the eyes of college coaches by going 9-1 with a 1.36 ERA as a senior, with 87 strikeouts.
The decision to focus on pitching could help Holder become the first MSU reliever to earn SEC All-Freshman honors. Nick Routt and Chris Stratton earned that distinction as starting pitchers in Cohen’s first two years as coach.
After earning his second save of the weekend, Holder received hugs from two of the most important people in his transition to a stopper in the bullpen: senior Caleb Reed and pitching coach Butch Thompson.
“He sure does work hard every day on his craft,” Reed said. “It’s great to see because I’ll be gone next year and it wonderful to see freshmen taking that much pride in what they do out here every day whether people are watching them or not. I promise you people are watching Jonathan Holder now.”
Initially, Reed didn’t like the fact that Holder was in position to be the team’s new closer. But Reed, who has given way to Holder in both of MSU’s wins in the series, is learning to change his thinking.
“I was really upset about it (Friday) night because I selfishly didn’t want to be taken out of any game,” Reed said. “That was my ego taking over, and I can’t that let happen ever again.”
Cohen said he made the move to try to get a more favorable matchup against pinch hitter/infielder Kenny Roberts.
Reed has essentially apologized for his attitude about not being the closer for every game and is training Holder to take over full-time when he graduates.
“Look at the scoreboard, it says we won again today, and that’s what I came here to be a part of,” Reed said. “I couldn’t be prouder of Holder, and if I’m his righty-righty matchup guy before he comes into games, then fine.”
Holder’s outings against Alabama have stretched his scoreless streak to 19 2/3 innings. He would be only the second pitcher in MSU history with an ERA under 1.00, but he’s unlikely to qualify for the minimum number of innings required by the SEC.
“Once he started to become a pitcher only then I’d walk into the meetings with coach Thompson and he’d already be there and I’d think, ‘Whoa Jon is beating me to the meetings now?'” Reed said. “It’s just a sign he wanted to start working hard and is putting the time into his pitching. He’s another example of you get what you put into this game.”
Holder’s emergence gives MSU another quality arm in the bullpen that could prove to be a huge advantage if it gets a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Along with sophomore right-hander Evan Mitchell, senior lefty Nick Routt, junior southpaw Luis Pollorena, and right-handed Taylor Stark, MSU could have the deepest bullpen in the nation.
“I think Mississippi State is a dangerous team that could find its way to Omaha (Neb., the site of the College World Series) this year based on what they can do every day on the mound, either in starting or in their bullpen,” Perfect Game college baseball national writer Kendall Rodgers said. “They have more depth in pitching talent than 90 percent of college baseball teams.”