LAKELAND, Fla. — Derek Holland warmed up on the mound with the bases loaded and no outs in the third inning Tuesday against the New York Yankees. He prepared to face Mike Tauchman, Tyler Wade and Rob Brantly — three left-handed hitters.
Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch needed a combination of strikes and weak contact.
The 34-year-old exceeded expectations. He struck out Tauchman looking with a 95.7 mph sinker, punched out Wade looking with another 95 mph sinker and then induced a weak grounder from Brantly to end the inning and leave the bases loaded.
“To be honest, excuse my language, I (expletive) loved that,” Holland, as always, said Tuesday. “That was great. To me, it’s more game-like. Not always will I start with a fresh inning, so it was good to come in that situation.”
Holland also pitched the fourth inning, striking out Brett Gardner (curveball, looking), Luke Voit (curveball, swinging) and Aaron Hicks (changeup, swinging). He logged five strikeouts against six batters, boosting his spring training resume: six scoreless innings, three hits, one walk and a whopping 11 strikeouts.
The 12-year MLB veteran is making a strong case for a spot on the 26-man Opening Day roster. He agreed to a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training in late January, after a rocky 6.86 ERA in 12 games (five starts) for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020.
The Tigers shifted him to the bullpen on a full-time basis. Early indications show the decision is paying dividends.
“You don’t get crowned a champion in spring training,” Holland said. “You don’t get a Cy Young, you don’t get a batting title. You don’t get none of that. I’m going to make sure I continue to do my job. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. If it does, then it does. Nothing’s guaranteed, and I want to make sure I earn it.”
During his career in the majors, Holland has pitched for the Texas Rangers (2009-16), Chicago White Sox (2017), San Francisco Giants (2018-19), Chicago Cubs (2019) and Pirates (2020). He owns a career 4.61 ERA and 1.373 WHIP in 1,416⅓ innings across 307 games (227 starts).
On Tuesday, Holland’s fastball averaged 94.8 mph — almost two ticks higher than his average last season — and he reached back to hit 96 mph on the radar gun. Hinch said the velocity “is what has opened eyes” in camp. He used his knuckle curve (13 times), sinker (nine), four-seam fastball (five) and changeup (three).
Holland overwhelmed the Yankees, finishing his two innings with 30 pitches (21 strikes), successfully executing the mantra of throwing strikes delivered by Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter since they were hired.
“I try to keep a boxer’s mentality,” Holland said. “As a starter, I had nine innings, so it was nine rounds. For me, I finished the first round (in the third inning), now I’m getting ready to go back out for my second. I wanted to make sure I continued to attack the zone.”
As for making the team, the Tigers have three left-handed relievers capable of throwing multiple innings and vying for playing time: Holland, Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander. They have all served as starters in the past but seem best suited for the bullpen.
Among them, Hinch is only guaranteeing Norris a spot on the roster.
“The rest of the guys are competing,” Hinch said Tuesday. “We’ll see where Norris fits in on the team (as a starter or reliever), but I could see us keeping as many guys that can go multiple innings.”