HOOVER, Ala. — Game over have been the words that have been synonymous with Jonathan Holder coming out of the bullpen.
For the school’s all-time leader in saves, his appearance normally has meant everybody in the Mississippi State baseball team’s dugout and all of the team’s fans felt the game was soon to be another win for the Bulldogs. After suffering his first consecutive blown saves of the season at the Southeastern Conference tournament, Holder will try to regain that aura of invincibility this week as MSU prepares for the NCAA tournament Regionals.
“It just happens that way,” Holder said Friday after a 7-6 loss to Kentucky in 12 innings. “I’m going to have to live with this one and come back out the next inning and find the strike zone.”
Before arriving at the SEC tournament at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, Holder hadn’t blown a save since April 12 against Ole Miss when he allowed three runs on six hits in 2 1/3 innings at Dudy Noble Field. But Tuesday night against Georgia, Holder allowed three hits and was charged with the game-tying in 1 2/3 innings. MSU rallied in the 10th inning for a 5-4 victory, but it wasn’t so fortunate against Kentucky.
Holder allowed one of two inherited runners to score in the eighth inning and then recorded the final two outs of the inning to work out of the jam. With a one-run lead in the ninth, Holder fooled A.J. Reed with a curveball, but the designated hitter dumped a blooper into short left field for a double. A wild pitch and a sacrifice fly sent the game to extra innings.
“We really beat his barrel on that pitch where he dumps it into left field,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “I think our kids have done a great job recently of challenging the strike zone, but that didn’t happen tonight.”
Holder kept MSU tied with Kentucky for the two innings and had five strikeouts. At 6-1 with a 2.38 ERA, he still is tied for second on the pitching staff in victories and fourth in ERA. He has allowed 40 hits and nine walks in 45 1/3 innings. He is second on the staff to Jacob Lindgren with 59 strikeouts.
“It’s one of those things where Holder had some shaky ones and, in my opinion, I surely wasn’t good (Thursday) night against Kentucky but we look at it like, get them out of our system now rather than later,” MSU senior pitcher Ben Bracewell said. “This whole thing served as preparation for what’s to come. We’ve got a lot of stuff we can be locked in on and learn from, and that’s important.”
After taking over as closer for Caleb Reed shortly before the SEC tournament in 2012, Holder knows pitchers are going to experience ups and downs. Still, he has experienced a lot of success at MSU in more than two and a half years. He has 37 saves and 179 strikeouts in 128 1/3 innings. The last time Holder allowed runs in back-to-back appearances came against Central Arkansas and at Virginia last season in the NCAA tournament Regionals and Super Regionals.
Cohen said there’s no need to panic about Holder. After all, Holder arrived at Hoover, Alabama, having allowed only one hit in his previous eight innings.
“Holder was an absolute warrior (Thursday) night, and you just can’t ask somebody to do a better job than he did on that night,” Cohen said. “Even 50 pitches in, he was demanding, ‘Hey I’ve got to go back out there and win this game for us’, and he always has that attitude.”
Holder, who is tied for sixth this season in the SEC with seven saves, admitted after the loss he had little confidence to locate his four-seam fastball and was forced to rely on his hard-breaking, overhand curveball.
“In the last couple of innings, (my curveball) was a lot sharper and I couldn’t throw strikes with the fastball, and that hurt,” Holder said.
Last season, MSU relied on Chad Girodo, Bracewell, Ross Mitchell, Lindgren, and Holder out of the bullpen and was able to shorten games. This season, Mitchell has moved into the starting rotation and Lindgren has emerged as a dominant left-handed weapon, much like Girodo. Lindgren leads the team with a 0.88 ERA and hasn’t allowed an earned run since April 18 at Missouri (a span of 11 appearances). MSU hopes Holder can regain his form to give the Bulldogs a shut-down option from either side out of the bullpen.
“Sometimes a guy will dump a ball into opposite field when you make a good pitch,” Holder said. “As a closer, you have to be mentally strong enough to handle that type of deal and be willing to take the baseball again when you’re called upon. It really is that simple.”
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.