In a snap, Holdzkom saw his fortunes change

Reliever key cog in Bucs' bullpen down the stretch after years in independent ball

In a snap, Holdzkom saw his fortunes change

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- John Holdzkom isn't even certain how many times he has been released.

"Five or six. Not fun," said Holdzkom, a tall man short on words.

He does, however, pinpoint the most disheartening release episode.

"I got released without the team even calling me. I looked on the Internet and saw my name next to 'Transactions' -- five days before I was supposed to report," Holdzkom said. "Yeah, that was bad."

It was even worse than that: It would have been cold coming from a Major League club, but that was from the Laredo Lemurs, an independent team.

"Independent" is baseball for "purgatory." You play, your life and career both in limbo, not knowing the direction in which you are headed. Toward the beckoning glow of baseball, or toward the shadow of could-have-been?

After a March 2011 release by the Mets, his original big league franchise, Holdzkom made himself at home in the purgatory. The Sioux City Explorers, the San Angelo Colts, the Amarillo Sox, even the Canberra Cavalry of the Australian Baseball League. He always caught somebody's eye, as a 6-foot-8 beanpole tripping the radar at triple figures is wont to do.

"I'd get looks from scouts, 'Oh, we really like you, we're going to sign you.' Then that'd be it. Never hear from them again," said Holdzkom, who naturally listened with skepticism when Mal Fichman gave him the same line late this June.

"When he came up to me after a game, I was happy," said Holdzkom. "But at the same time, I'm thinking, 'Until my name is on the dotted line, I'm not going to get too excited.'"

Tyrone Brooks, the Pirates' director of player personnel who had hired Fichman to pan for independent talent only days earlier, was immediately excited. Embroiled in a dogfight for a playoff berth, the Bucs were looking for relief help. Could it be?

Brooks pulled the trigger, then pulled some strings. Within days, Holdzkom was pitching in Altoona, Pittsburgh's Double-A outpost. Within a week, he moved on to Triple-A Indianapolis. On Sept. 2 -- 72 days after he had removed his Amarillo Sox uniform for the last time -- he was making his Major League debut in St. Louis, striking out the side.

A month later, three months removed from independent ball, Holdzkom was pitching in a postseason game. Stuff like this just doesn't happen.

Holdzkom is having as much difficulty as anyone else coming to grips with the possibility of a happy ending after eight years of his life being as out of control as his pitches.

From 2008-2012, with four different farm teams in two organizations, Holdzkom had walked 68 men in 61 innings. He also punched out 76, but as pointed out by the Amarillo GM who gave him his last showcase, speed without direction is useless.

"Hitting 101 [mph], if you're throwing strikes, is awesome. But if you're not, it doesn't matter," Mark Lee had said.

It began to matter, instantly, with the Bucs. Holdzkom, who continued to have those command issues while pitching independent ball, had 11 strikeouts for the Pirates before issuing his second walk. All told, he relieved nine times, an inning at a time, and had 14 strikeouts to two walks.

He was, and remains, completely unaffected by the breakthrough success -- which may be behind it. When you become comfortable with the thought that it may never happen -- it becomes more attainable.

"That's his personality -- continue to show up, punch the clock," said his manager, Clint Hurdle. "Opportunities have fallen his way like some dominoes. He understands more than others how fleeting it can be."

In a couple of months -- 10 years after he was first drafted and nine years after signing his first pro contract -- Holdzkom will attend his first Major League Spring Training camp.

"Being on the Pirates," he said, "there definitely is something more in the air. But I try not to think about it. I'll always be able to say, for the rest of my life, 'I pitched in the big leagues.'"

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.