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Holder brings drama, history to closer's role

 

Matthew Stevens

 

OMAHA, Neb. -- Two lines in the song that plays as Jonathan Holder leaves the bullpen and walks to the mound at Dudy Noble Field say everything Mississippi State University baseball fans feel about the sophomore closer.  

 

"He called my name and my heart stood still. When he said, 'John go do my will.' "  

 

The sound of Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down" signals Holder's arrival and means MSU is close to another victory. 

 

"It's a feeling for us, too," MSU junior shortstop Adam Frazier said. "There's a collective feeling of OK, we've got this because we have a lead and Johnathan Holder is coming into the game. We just play at a higher level." 

 

The sophomore closer notched his 19th and 20th saves in MSU's victories against No. 3 national seed Oregon State University and Indiana University at the College World Series games. He hopes to add to that total starting at 2 p.m. today (ESPN) against OSU (52-12). A victory would send MSU (50-18) into the best-of-three national  

 

championship series for the first time. 

 

"I just love it," Holder said. "There's an adrenaline rush that happens in your body when you know everybody in the stands knows you and only you are what separates their favorite team from a victory. On the road, it's the same rush because those fans are dead quiet knowing you're coming in, even without the Johnny Cash." 

 

Holder, who is fourth in the nation in saves, has saves in all four of his NCAA tournament appearances. In addition to tying Van Johnson for the school record with 29 career saves, Holder is 2-0 with a 1.26 ERA in 32 games. He has 86 strikeouts in 50 innings. 

 

Today, Holder hopes to get to be the final MSU pitcher to take the baseball from pitching coach Butch Thompson and help the Bulldogs secure a chance to play for the program's first national title. A loss today would force an elimination game against OSU at a time to be determined. 

 

"There's a tangible quality to having a guy at the back end of your bullpen that nobody wants to see," MSU coach John Cohen said. "I knew as a hitter that the closer you got to the eighth or ninth inning, the odds swung heavy in the opponents favor if we didn't at least tie the game. You know that in the back your mind before a guy like Holder steps to the mound." 

 

Holder, a Louisville Slugger first-team All-American, isn't concerned about passing Johnson for the school record. The way he looks at it, another victory puts the team one step closer to history. He has helped the Bulldogs get this far with a punishing, 92-94 fastball. But unlike most dominant relief pitchers, his curveball has been his out pitch. The pitch -- referred to as a "12 to 6" curveball -- breaks at the hitter's eyes and ends up in the bottom of the strike zone, just like the hours on a clock. Thompson admits he has never seen a curveball like Holder's.  

 

"It is a vertically moving curveball that he's able to get guys looking on," Thompson said. "I can't tell you how rare that is. In over 20 years of doing this I've seen guys get swings and misses on one in the dirt or called third strikes on a slider moving side to side. But how he hypnotizes guys into taking that pitch is something I haven't seen." 

 

After having a miserable fall two years ago, Holder, who was a three-year starter at first base and pitcher at Gulfport High School, told Cohen he wanted to concentrate on pitching. Neither Cohen nor Holder knew how that decision would pan out. 

 

"He went home in January and threw pens and long tossed so much that when 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 really helped him because his attention needed to be on just one thing." 

 

Holder believes the relationship with senior Caleb Reed he nurtured last season has helped him this season. Reed wasn't happy about losing his role as closer during a weekend at the University of Alabama, and he threw his glove in frustration when he entered the dugout and yelled at Thompson and Cohen. But Holder didn't allow Reed's emotions affect his focus. He pitched 2 2/3 innings in two games to earn his second and third saves of the season. He went on to earn consensus freshman All-America honors from Collegiate Baseball, Baseball America, NCBWA, and Perfect Game. He finished 2-1 with a 0.32 ERA and nine saves. He had 30 strikeouts and allowed one earned run in 28 1/3 innings, and set a school record for consecutive scoreless innings (27 1/3 to open his career). 

 

Holder immediately earned the respect of his teammates as a freshman with a bald head. During the summer, he let his hair grow out and became another player with plenty of facial hair. But this Bulldog has a rally-killing song that goes perfectly with his coiffed locks. 

 

"If during his running and conditioning, he's last or not putting in the work, then the hair has to go," said Cohen, who has says Cohen, who has relaxed his rules about facial hair and how the players look on and off the field this season. "He hasn't gotten lazy or let up one bit. If his hair length is what he feels gives him that extra bite on that breaking ball, then God bless him." 

 

 

 

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