Harrison, Holland set to lead Texas down stretch

Harrison, Holland poised to lead Rangers down stretch

ANAHEIM -- Rangers pitcher Derek Holland left Spring Training with a five-year, $28.5 million contract extension. Matt Harrison left working on the same one-year deal that he reached with the Rangers in January to avoid arbitration.

On a team where just about every player's contract situation has produced an almost unending amount of speculation, Harrison pitches in financial obscurity.

"He's the one who should get a big contract," Holland said. "He's done more than I have. He's been consistent and done a lot more. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have gotten to the World Series last year."

That could be said for both and could end up that way again this season. Both Holland and Harrison opened up the second half with scoreless efforts against the Mariners and will be on the mound this weekend during a three-game series against the Angels.

The significant progress they have made the past two years has been an integral part of the Rangers' pitching success, and their continued development remains crucial to both the immediate and long-term future. The Rangers may try to upgrade their starting pitching before the Trade Deadline, but Harrison and Holland remain at the heart of the rotation now and for the next several seasons to come.

"They are both special," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "They strive to get better every time out. They are both great competitors who don't back down from anyone. They have high ceilings and our expectations are great. What we saw last week is what we expect. They both expect to go out and compete and win every game."

Harrison has been close to doing that lately. He won 14 games in 2011 but has taken his game to another level as an All-Star this season. After 18 starts, he is 12-4 with a 2.87 ERA and two shutouts. As solid as he was in 2011, he is enjoying a breakout season and has emerged as the staff ace.

"We have been impressed with him as much as any of the guys we have," general manager Jon Daniels said. "He has taken responsibility for his career. He's talked to some people, sought out advice, figured out what works for him and run with it. A lot of people have helped him, but you have to give Matt the credit."

Harrison was one of five players acquired from the Braves in the 2007 trade for Mark Teixeira, but his first three full seasons in the organization were an erratic blur of injury, surgery, spurts of excellence and longer stretches of frustration. During the Rangers' run to the 2010 World Series, Harrison split his time between the rotation, disabled list, Triple-A and the bullpen. When the playoffs began, Harrison was left off the roster.

He has not forgotten that and never will.

"That was the worst part of it all," Harrison said. "That's what woke me up. If they had just stuck me on the team in the bullpen, I'd probably still be in the bullpen or in the Minor Leagues. But that gave me the motivation to come back strong and show people something."

Harrison has always had the physical talent. He is a 6-foot-4 left-hander, who can hit 95 mph with offspeed pitches to match. But the soft-spoken native of rural North Carolina realized he had to be tougher mentally.

"I always thought ability would take care of everything, but that's not the way it works," Harrison said. "The guys who are strong in the mental part of the game are the ones who stay around a long time. I want to be one of those guys."

He has spent the past few years working on his mental approach. He has read books written by sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman and respected baseball executive Karl Kuehl. He has talked with successful pitchers like Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux and Cliff Lee. He spent his time at the All-Star Game "picking the brains" of his peers.

Most helpful were a series of discussions earlier this season with Don Kalkstein, a long-time and highly regarded performance-enhancement coach who works as a consultant for the Rangers. They talked about Harrison's preparation, routine and thought process on the mound. They covered much ground and Harrison took his advice to heart.

He also wrote two reminders under the bill of the cap he wears while pitching: TAQ and EVA.

"TAQ," Harrison said. "T is for tempo, A is for aggressiveness and Q is for quality pitches down in the zone with conviction. That's the last thing I think about before I go on the mound."

And EVA?

"Evaluate each pitch, visualize a successful pitch and then affirm the pitch," Harrison said. "Follow that process and you focus on the task at hand. Don't focus on the previous pitch, it's over. Don't think too far ahead. The task at hand is the next pitch. There are times when you relax on the mound and don't even know it. You get two outs and then you'll walk a guy instead of making a pitch to get out of the inning.

"The goal is to be focused 100 percent of the time on the pitch at hand."

He is not there yet completely but he is 8-1 with a 1.34 ERA in his last 10 starts.

"In combat, they don't fear the guy who is just out of basic training and is well-trained," Mike Maddux said. "They fear the guy who has been in the field and has the battle scars. Harrison fits into that role. He has battle scars. He has been in situations where he didn't do well, decided to do something about it and gotten better because of it."

Holland has been going through his own trials this season. He went 10-1 with a 2.77 ERA in his final 15 starts in 2011 and the Rangers thought he was ready to dominate for an entire season. Instead he is 6-4 with a 4.57 ERA going into Friday's start against the Angels.

A start against the Mariners on May 30, when he gave up eight runs in 1 2/3 innings, did much damage to his ERA. But he also missed one month because the debilitating effects from a stomach virus and is now just getting back to full strength. The Rangers were encouraged by 7 2/3 scoreless innings against the Mariners last Friday.

"To me, I don't think this season has been as bad as some people make it out to be," Holland said. "One bad outing got my ERA high, and then I got sick. I still think it has been a successful year because of the innings that I have been able to pitch. It's like last year, it's not always how you start but how you finish. I need to find a way to finish strong."

The Rangers made a significant commitment to Holland in Spring Training. He said he has not put undue pressure on himself to live up to that commitment.

"If anything it has made me more relaxed," Holland said. "But I still have a lot of pride. I still want to be the best I can be. I want to be a Cy Young winner and win the World Series. I go out there and treat it the same as if I'm trying to earn a contract."

The Rangers know how good Holland can be. He pitched a two-hit shutout over 8 1/3 innings in a 4-0 victory over the Cardinals in Game 4 of last year's World Series, a performance that ranks right up there with Lee's postseason work for the Rangers in 2010. His four shutouts during the regular season in 2011 were tied for the league lead.

"We still believe in Derek," Daniels said. "He got sick, and that really wore him out and led to some shoulder issues. But with the exception of one negative start against Seattle, it's still been pretty good. It's still not what he is capable of but with Derek we've seen the good and the bad. The thing we're looking for is consistency. We'd like to see him go on an extended run in the second half."

Harrison is on one of those extended runs. If Holland can join him, it could be much bigger than anything the Rangers do at the Trade Deadline. They push each other to the ultimate goal.

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.