Holt's pals say he's always been a hit

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- First impression of Brock Holt? The New York investment banker chuckled.

"I don't think he said two words to anyone," said Pat Irvine, who was the third baseman to Holt's shortstop on the State College (Pennsylvania) Spikes, the team in the Class A New York-Penn League where they both made their professional debut in 2009. "He was super quiet."

Quiet, but not alone. Irvine saw to that. So did Tony Sanchez, the former Boston College star catcher and No. 1 draft pick for the Pittsburgh Pirates that season.

"He had the locker next to me," Sanchez said. "The team had already begun its season, we were trying to slide in, and it was an uncomfortable situation.

"I said to him, 'Hey man, you're uncomfortable. I'm uncomfortable. Let's be uncomfortable together.'"

It didn't take long for Sanchez, the city kid from Miami, and Holt, the country boy from Stephenville, Texas, to discover they had similar ideas of how to have a good time.

"Sitting on a couch, falling asleep to a TV show," Sanchez says. "No excitement with us. It's all low-maintenance."

They drew even closer the following season, in Bradenton of the Class A Florida State League, when Holt tore the meniscus in his left knee. His family came to town in June for a visit, and one day planned an outing to the beach. Sanchez was jealous.

"I wish I could hang out with you guys," he said.

Another case of be careful what you wish for. "Six hours later, a pitcher named Brad Holt -- I can't make this stuff up -- threw a 95 mile-an-hour fastball off my face," Sanchez said.

It was the second time that month Sanchez had been hit in the face by a pitch. This one fractured his jaw. "For the next three months, I was carrying around Brock's stuff, and he was blending me bland food," Sanchez said.

Sometimes you pick your friends. Sometimes they pick you. And sometimes, if you're lucky, those friendships last even when your paths veer off in different directions. Irvine, a native of Westwood (Massachusetts), prep star at The Hotchkiss School and captain of his college team at Elon (North Carolina), was a 33rd-round draft pick who washed out of pro ball after two seasons, landing on his feet as a vice president at EnTrust Capital in Manhattan.

Sanchez has played for the Pirates in each of the last two seasons, is currently continuing his apprenticeship with their Triple-A team in Indianapolis, and almost certainly will be a September call-up in the midst of an exciting division race in the National League Central.

Holt? He ranks as the best story in an otherwise forgettable Red Sox season, an afterthought in spring who became an indispensable piece for manager John Farrell once he showed he could handle a job -- batting leadoff -- after everyone else had flunked their tests.

Holt comes into this weekend's series against the Tampa Bay Rays leading the Sox in hitting with a .291 average. He is tied for second on the Sox in hits with David Ortiz, is second in runs, tied for third in doubles with Xander Bogaerts, is first in triples and stolen bases, is tied with Dustin Pedroia with a .342 on-base percentage, and is third in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) behind Ortiz and Mike Napoli.

The number of American League rookies with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title and having a better season than Holt? One: Jose Abreu, the Cuban strongman and White Sox first baseman who figures to be a runaway winner for the American League's Rookie of the Year.

The hits have been harder to come by in the season's second half -- he has had two prolonged dry spells that dropped his average to .289 five days ago, the lowest it has been since he was batting .267 on May 18. But he has hit safely in his last four games (6-for-18, .333) while scoring seven runs, stealing three bases and getting hit by a pitch.

All of this from a player who made an indifferent impression on the Sox last season, when he hit just .203 in a limited trial, then failed to make the team's Opening Day roster as a backup.

Surprised? You may be, but his buddies aren't.

"He could always hit, man," Irvine said. "He was our best player, by far. I had no doubt if he became an everyday player he could hit .300."

Sanchez said he and his girlfriend, Jessica, have a game they play.

"It's called, 'How many hits did Brock Holt get tonight?'" he said. "They called Brock up to Triple-A [in 2012] and he hit .432. I started to get jealous about how good he was. I'd be sitting on the bench and he'd make it look easy, and I'd be thinking, 'Why can't I do that? Why can't I hit like Brock Holt?'"

The Sox didn't miss out on the fact that Holt hit .307 in 454 minor-league games. They asked for him when they traded for closer Joel Hanrahan, but GM Ben Cherington will tell you, no one expected Holt to make this kind of impact.

And no one, including his pals, imagined him playing seven different positions for the Sox this season -- all four infield spots, all three outfield spots -- and play them well. Sanchez describes watching Holt make a diving catch in right field.

"Jessica said to me, 'Oh my God, does he do something like this every game?'"

Irvine said one part of Holt's game hasn't developed.

"Ask him whatever happened to his power," he said. "Ask him how many home runs he hit in the home run derby at the New York-Penn All-Star Game."

Irvine, of course, was just relishing the chance to tweak his friend. "Zero," said Holt, who has never come close to matching the six home runs he hit for the Spikes that year. "Goose egg."

The friends remain in regular contact. Irvine said they usually talk a couple of times a week, and he went to see Holt play in Texas earlier this season. He's already planning a reunion for next week, when the Sox come to New York to play the Yankees.

Irvine was home in Westwood in 2012 when Holt called the day after Christmas. "Dude," Holt said to Irvine, "I'm coming to the Red Sox."

Irvine thought at first Holt was joking. But when he saw it actually come to pass, he reacted the way a best friend would.

"It was exciting," he said, "to see someone else living out your dream."

The Sox have a trip to Pittsburgh next month, and Sanchez is hoping he'll be there to greet him. They text constantly. "Short and quick," Sanchez said.

"Wow, boss. Great game."

"Cut your hair."

"I like your hair."

"These are pictures of my apartment."

Sanchez said he owns a Derek Jeter jersey, and an Ortiz jersey, too. There's one more he plans to add to his collection.

"I've got my Brock Holt jersey on order," he said.