Derek Holland holds key to rotation

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The most important starter for the Texas Rangers this season won't be Yu Darvish, who is likely to challenge for the Cy Young, or Matt Harrison, the club's most consistent starter the past few years.

No, the key cog is a guy sporting a mediocre mustache but a strong work ethic. Derek Holland is the tipping point of this staff. If he performs well, it becomes a deeper rotation capable of vaulting the Rangers back to the World Series. If he falters, it weakens the back end and raises doubts about the faith the club put in him when it signed him him to a seven-year deal before the 2012 season.

It's time for Holland to show what he can do. It's time to see more maturity. And general manager Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington say they believe that's what they're seeing from Holland so far.

"He gives off the vibe that he has something to prove," Daniels said. "He's taking it seriously. He's looking to eliminate some of the clutter, the distractions and focus on the task at hand. We've seen what he's capable of."

Washington sees a pitcher honing in on his mechanics and his mental game and doing what he can to improve them.

"I think he's matured and grown up a little bit," Washington said. "I think he knows where the priorities are now, and sometimes you have to go through the adversity to understand what needs to be done and how it needs to be done on a consistent basis. We know he has a tremendous amount of ability and we certainly expect him to hold up his part of it."

That's not to say Daniels and Washington want Holland shaving his mustache or cutting his hair. As Daniels pointed out, Holland "had that bad mustache when he threw a shutout in the World Series."

And Daniels and Washington don't want to change Holland's personality at all.

"I want Derek to continue to be who he is because if he tries to be something else, we won't have Derek Holland anymore," Washington said. "He's here to perform on the baseball stage, and it would be nice to see all of his focus on that."

Surely, we'll still see his impersonations of Harry Caray and Arnold Schwarzenegger at times in the clubhouse. But we're likely to see more of Holland the pitcher, too. There's seriousness to the way Holland talks about the season.

"I put pressure on myself," Holland said. "Going into this year, I have really big expectations. I feel like the weight is on my shoulders. It comes down to what I've got to do, plus the two guys behind me. The pressure is really on me."

Darvish looked like an ace in the final seven weeks of 2012. He was the club's starter in the AL wild-card game and appears destined to be the club's No. 1 starter for years to come. Harrison had a second straight solid season and was rewarded with an All-Star appearance and a long-term contract after recording a team-high 18 wins.

Holland? He took a step back. That dazzling Game 4 World Series start in 2011 is a distant memory. It gave Holland confidence and the club the belief that he was headed for future success. But it didn't materialize last season. Holland got sick, lost weight and wasn't himself for a while. Then he developed shoulder issues and never got into a rhythm. He never reverted to the guy who pitched so well in the second half of the 2011 campaign. He ended up 12-7 with a 4.67 ERA in 175 1/3 innings pitched. He had no complete games and no shutouts after posting four of them in 2011. His ERA was nearly a point higher and he gave up way too many home runs (32) -- more than one per start.

Holland says he knows he hasn't been able to keep up with Darvish and Harrison and that he needs a good year to get to their level.

"We all know what they're (Darvish and Harrison) capable of and how good they are," Holland said. "I had one good year in 2011."

Give Holland some credit. He understands he must get things together now. He spent the offseason seeking counsel from some important folks, starting with Nolan Ryan. Holland picked the Hall of Famer's brain about drills he could do to get more consistent with his location.

"They are good ones, too," Holland said.

He stayed in Dallas this offseason rather than Arizona, where he has a home, and worked with pitching coach Mike Maddux and others on his mechanics and approach. The result is a pitcher that feels better about the state of his game as spring training begins.

"I'm proud of him this winter," Daniels said. "He's worked unbelievably hard and he's committed to his craft."

That commitment includes his mental state. Holland spent time talking with Rangers sports psychologist Don Kalkstein.

"He was keeping me focused," Holland said. "We've been doing drills to make sure everything is locked in. I can get distracted real easily. I'm talking to you now, but I want to know everything that's going on around me.

"He has me more locked in. We've been doing all kinds of stuff to stay focused. I've had regular conversations. He's helped me out a lot."

Holland's approach has impressed Washington, too.

"I traveled with him a couple of times in the winter and I saw a change in his attitude and his demeanor," Washington said. "He looks like he's turned the corner in maturity."

For Washington, it was less about goofiness and more about Holland trying to do too many things that took away from his routine. The skipper sees a player "whose body and mind are in shape."

Holland will be leaving spring training in early March to participate in the World Baseball Classic, which he said is fulfilling a dream. Because he needs to be able to throw three innings before that starts, Holland has been throwing bullpen sessions earlier than normal. It has him feeling good and ready to get 2013 going.

"I feel like this will be a big, big year," Holland said. "I actually think it's going to be better than it was in 2011."

It needs to be for the Rangers' rotation to be one of the best in baseball. Holland will have to deal with that pressure and find a way to thrive. He knows it.