Derek Holland avoids disaster, gets W

ARLINGTON, Texas – Derek Holland still can’t grow a decent mustache, but he’s become a man on the mound this season.

For proof, look at the 24-year-old lefty’s performance in the top of the first inning of Saturday’s critical Game 2. It certainly wasn’t pretty, as Holland threw 29 pitches and allowed a run on two hits and two walks in the frame. But it wasn’t a total disaster.

That’s a major sign of progress for a young pitcher with electric stuff and a track record for letting bad spells snowball.

This one could have easily been worse, which would have put the defending American League champion Rangers on the brink of elimination in the best-of-5 divisional series against the Rays. Six weeks ago, maybe Holland unravels after walking Kelly Shoppach with the bases loaded to gift Tampa a lead.

That didn’t happen Saturday night in the most pressure-packed start of the kid’s career. He got out of the inning by getting Sean Rodriguez to hit a routine grounder to second.

“We figure with the bases loaded, they’re going to get a run,” manager Ron Washington said. “That kind of stuff used to snowball on him. He’s learning to minimize damage.”

Added Holland: “To control the damage the way I did, I felt like that’s a huge improvement for me.”

No kidding.

Holland failed to last more than four innings in five of his first 26 starts this season. He gave up big innings to get the early hook in each of those disappointing outings, a maddening trend for a guy who pitched brilliantly in several other starts.

There’s hope that trend has ended for good. Holland was simply spectacular in his last six starts of the regular season, bouncing back from an abbreviated debacle in an Aug. 21 loss against the White Sox to go 5-0 with a 2.06 ERA down the stretch.

“Early in the year, people would always ask, ‘What are you gonna do with him?’” Washington said. “What the hell were we supposed to do with him? The only thing we can do is teach him.”

One lesson that was hammered into Holland’s head was learning how to control his nerves. He passed a major test in the top of the first.

Holland didn’t dominate in the first postseason start of his career, when he allowed three runs (one earned, and the others on a two-run homer immediately after his throwing error in the fourth). But he was solid, giving up six hits and two walks while gutting through five innings and getting the ball to the bullpen with a lead.

That was a grown-man effort good enough to get the win. And it was good enough to give the Rangers a realistic shot in this series.