ST. PETERSBURG -- Rangers pitcher Cliff Lee pitched seven terrific innings in a 5-1 victory over the Rays on Wednesday. Later that night, Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter against the Reds in Philadelphia. Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux brought up both while talking about left-hander Derek Holland on Thursday morning at Tropicana Field. "There was a one-time prospect who threw a no-hitter last night who once got sent down to Minors," Maddux said. "The pitcher for us yesterday was a guy who got sent to the Minors [in 2007] after winning 14 games. If you look at Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, it didn't come easy for them either."
The inference in regard to Holland is obvious. It's not coming easy for him either, and certainly not as quickly as the Rangers possibly thought. Instead it was more difficult than he imagined. "Upsetting," Holland said in reviewing his 2010 season. "That's the best way I can put it ... getting hurt, bouncing back and forth. It shows how injuries can impact in a bad way. You've got to work hard to stay healthy and everything else will pay off." He is healthy now and he is on the Rangers' American League Division Series roster. He was one of the last players named to the team on Tuesday -- beating out fellow left-handers Clay Rapada and Michael Kirkman -- and he is in the bullpen. He was the Rangers' fifth starter when the season ended but now he is a middle reliever in the playoffs. That's good enough for now. "I'm happy to be here, but I still feel like I need to stay prepared," Holland said. "These are big games for us and you've got to take your 'A' game out there every time." Holland wanted to be a part of this and his goal in September was to pitch well enough to earn a spot on the playoff roster. He ended up 1-2 with a 3.67 ERA in September and was the Rangers' starter in the AL West-clinching victory over Oakland. He would love to have one more moment in the playoffs to remind people who he is and what kind of pitcher he can still be. "I definitely feel that way," Holland said. "After the season I had -- the injuries, being up and down -- this would be a great time to shine and show that I belong." It has been eight months since Holland reported to Spring Training as a leading candidate for the rotation. Once one of the highest-rated prospects in baseball -- he was the Rangers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2008 -- his star was only slightly tarnished by going 8-13 with a 6.12 ERA in 21 starts and 12 relief appearance for the Rangers in 2009. The ERA ended by being inflated because of a bad September, but the Rangers also remembered a stretch during the summer when he was 4-1 with a 1.85 ERA. That included a shutout of the Angels that opposing manager Mike Scioscia called the best game pitched against his team that year. So the Rangers had him high on the list of candidates for the rotation in Spring Training, but he fell behind quickly after suffering a sprained right knee early in the camp. By the time he recovered, left-handers C.J. Wilson and Matt Harrison had seized the two open spots in the rotation. "It was the first time I was hurt and it was tough to handle," Holland said. "Most of the time you want to battle and fight through the pain. I didn't know what to make of it. It was new to me." Tommy Hunter had to go through the same fight because of a strained oblique muscle and both found themselves at Triple-A Oklahoma City when the season began. Holland recovered quicker and actually beat Hunter to the big leagues. He was called up on May 12 and went 2-0 with a 2.95 ERA in his first three starts plus one spot relief appearance. If he had kept that up, he would have been with the Rangers all year and starting against the Rays this week. But he was developing shoulder pain and he was pulled from a game against Minnesota on May 31 after allowing three runs in one inning. The diagnosis was shoulder inflammation and Holland was placed on the disabled list. Hunter took his spot and has been here ever since. Holland went to Arizona to resume throwing and reinjured his right knee on June 18 at the end of his rehab program. The shoulder was sound but the knee kept on the disabled list until the beginning of August. "It happened at the worst time, one day before I was supposed to come back," Holland said. He wouldn't get back to Major Leagues until mid-August and didn't replace Rich Harden in the rotation for good until the beginning of September. He finished 3-4 with a 4.08 ERA in 10 starts and four relief appearance. "Another learning experience," Holland said wistfully. "We'll see what it's like in postseason. But I have to pitch better up here to stay around longer. The only thing that really killed me was pitch counts. Most games I had high pitch counts and couldn't go longer than five innings. We ended up using the bullpen more than we should have. The big thing is getting my pitch counts down." Holland, in his 10 starts, ended up averaging 4.6 innings and 87.9 pitches per outing. He averaged 18.8 pitches per inning, the third highest among all Major Leaguers with at least 10 starts. Only Harden (19.1) and Dontrelle Willis (19.0) were higher. But the Rangers still view him with high regard. He ended the season in the rotation, so he goes into Spring Training next year as a serious candidate to reclaim that spot. It won't be given to him but there is still opportunity. He still has a plus fastball but needs to sharpen both his breaking ball and changeup. Both have a tendency to be erratic and desert him at the wrong time. Many pitchers get multiple chances, especially when they are as talented as Holland. Lee and Halladay were among them. Both were sent back to the Minors at some point in their careers for more work after enjoying significant success at the Major League level. "I think Derek's made strides," Maddux said. "In Spring Training he was looking pretty good until he got hurt. He's had to overcome some adversity. He's been so resilient for the short time he's been here, so to have those injuries, it shocked a lot of us because he has a healthy body. "But he's on the postseason roster because he earned it."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.