<
>

Derek Holland needs to stay in control

ARLINGTON, Texas -- For half a season now, Derek Holland has enjoyed poking fun at the peach fuzz that clings to life on his upper lip.

As Saturday night's Game 6 starter for the Texas Rangers in this heart-stopping American League Championship Series, the 25-year-old southpaw will reveal whether the hair on his chest has grown thicker than those meager strands that pass for a mustache.

This is a man's game now, and those burly Detroit Tigers, gimpy yet still game after their Game 5 bounce-back, know the pressure of postseason survival rests within Holland's sometimes sensory-overloaded psyche.

Depending on how tenuous his grasp is on his emotions, Holland's live-wire left arm can either sizzle or quickly short-circuit.

"That's the problem right there: him being able to corral the energy and anxiety that goes along with competition," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "If he corrals that anxiety, we may finally see a guy get deep in a ballgame. But that's something that Holland has to control within himself. We can talk to him. We can tell him what he has to do. But once he crosses those lines, it's all on him."

Anxiety devoured Holland in his abbreviated Game 2 start. Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez scrunched his forehead trying to remember the cameo.

"I don't know," Martinez said, perhaps facetiously. "I don't really remember how many innings he went."

He should remember because Holland clipped him with a floating curve after Miguel Cabrera smoked a double off a high fastball, the pitch ultimately sabotaged by Holland's anxiety-ridden, 76-pitch adrenaline binge, which Washington ended following just 2 2/3 innings.

It was Holland's third-shortest start of the season and his worst since Aug. 5.

Neither of his two postseason starts has been memorable. He has thrown 169 pitches in 7 2/3 innings, more than 22 pitches on average per inning. He threw 93 pitches in five innings in his AL Division Series start.

Now he's being asked to become the first Rangers pitcher since Colby Lewis in Game 3 of the ALDS to produce a quality start (six innings of three or fewer runs), and to line up the club's so-far brilliant and now fully rested bullpen -- by far Texas' most valuable asset in the series -- for a chance to clinch the pennant.

A year ago, this very game, a 3-2 ALCS lead at home against the New York Yankees, belonged to Lewis, who, unlike Holland, entered it on a roll and delighted the packed house with eight superbly pitched innings.

"I tell him like I tell myself, you've got to go out there and keep your team in the game regardless of all the hype and all the hoopla that goes into the postseason," Lewis said. "It's any other start. You've got to stay focused on things that you do best."

If not, winner-take-all Game 7 is Sunday night.

"After just being able to go out there the first time and the way that things went, I'm going to be a lot calmer than I was before," Holland said. "Just to get the jitters out was the big thing. And I think now going into [Game 6], I'm going to be more relaxed."

But Washington has heard it before, and in Game 2 Holland still subconsciously ramped up to overdrive and never could dial back. It messed with his mechanics, and he left his fastballs chest high with no ability to regroup.

"I felt calm, but everybody said you could see that I was going a little too fast for the way I usually work," Holland said. "So, the big thing now is just to control myself, and I feel like I'm going to be doing just fine with that."

Holland will again face shrewd Detroit right-hander Max Scherzer. Scherzer's postseason has gone the other way, having decreased his 4.43 ERA in the regular season to 2.70 with 13 strikeouts and five walks in 13 1/3 innings.

Holland has struck out two with six walks in nine total innings (including 1 1/3 of scoreless relief in Game 4 of the ALDS).

In their first matchup, Scherzer staked Holland to a 2-0 lead in the first. But while Holland hopped on hot coals for two innings before imploding in the third, Scherzer rang up zeroes until Nelson Cruz boomed a game-tying, leadoff homer in the seventh, and the Rangers eventually won in 11 innings.

Scherzer said he will approach Game 6 with a football mentality: Get the defense off the field quickly and let the offense -- in this case, a dangerous, right-handed heavy one -- grind away on the other guy.

"I feel like if I can go out there and work some quick innings, that always seems to provide our offense some momentum and they always seem to come through in those types of situations," Scherzer said. "It's kind of like the time-of-possession thing in football where if I can kind of continue to keep the momentum on my side, I feel like our offense at any time can explode."

If explosions come early, Holland's fortitude will be put to the ultimate postseason test.

"He realizes what happened last time," said Mike Napoli, who expects to catch Holland. "I think he'll be able to handle his emotions better this time."

If not, Washington will again have a quick hook and the Rangers' World Series hopes will be back in the hands of their bullpen.

Jeff Caplan covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.