SURPRISE, Ariz. On the day Ron Washington had to scratch starting shortstop Elvis Andrus because of muscle soreness brought on by a new tattoo, the Texas Rangers got their first win of the Cactus League season. But with apologies to Lance Berkman and Jurickson Profar, the most important performance Thursday came from starting pitcher Derek Holland.
For the Rangers to have any hope of contending for a playoff spot this season, Holland needs to look like the guy who dominated hitters in the second half of the 2011 season. He lost his edge in 2012 and gave up way too many long balls. This past offseason, he vowed to take a more serious approach. He decided to cancel his weekly radio show and not spend so much time trying to entertain folks away from the field.
Now, he's preparing to leave the Rangers this weekend to join Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. That's the reason he became the first Rangers pitcher to throw four innings in a game Thursday. He used an effective changeup to keep Cleveland hitters off balance while scattering three hits and no runs over four innings. When there was the hint of trouble, he induced a double-play ball in the second inning. And he should've only given up two hits since he could've easily been charged with an error on a misplayed ball.
Holland believes that playing in ultra-competitive games in the WBC will only make him sharper when the Rangers' season begins later this month. He didn't have a good grasp on the Team USA roster when I talked to him Thursday, but he'll have a chance to see everyone when the ballclub meets in Scottsdale on Sunday.
"With some of these teams will be playing, it will be like facing the Angels over and over again," Holland told me. "I guess the WBC sort of replaces Olympic baseball, although I hope they bring that back at some point.
The Rangers continue to have faith in Holland, although their patience grows thin at times. Nolan Ryan told ESPN 103.3 on Wednesday that Holland was "lackadaisical" at times last season. But he and pitching coach Mike Maddux worked together a lot over the winter. When Holland wasn't attending Mavs games he's a glutton for punishment he was in the weight room getting stronger. And though Holland vowed to get his priorities in order, his manager doesn't want him to change his personality.
"I certainly don't want Derek to change who he is," said Washington. "If goofiness comes with it, then it comes with it. In Derek's case, it's just about focus."
When it comes to Holland, Washington has taken a hands-on approach. He'll jog out to the mound to remind Holland to stop trying to be cute and just finish off hitters. The two have a very unique relationship, as evidenced by how Washington playfully slaps his pitcher on both sides of the face before some games.
"The good thing about Derek, he can get two outs with the quickest," Washington told us on ESPN 103.3. "But then he has trouble with that third one. Thursday's game was an example of his growth going into 2013 and I certainly loved what I saw."
Holland might remind some Rangers fans of Bobby Witt, who had tremendous stuff but had trouble with consistency. The Rangers believe that Holland is prepared to rebound from a poor 2012 campaign.
Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison should have the Nos. 1 and 2 spots nailed down coming out of spring training. If Holland returns to his 2011 was, this rotation has a chance to be pretty special.
On Thursday, he blew away an Indians team that brought most of their every-day players to Surprise. It's certainly too early to say he's turned the corner, but with his stuff, it's OK to have big expectations.
"He worked hard this winter with Mike Maddux the whole time and he's reaping the benefits right now," said Washington. "And he showed today that he's already in game shape."