When the Royals arrived for Spring Training, the closer role belonged to, who else, Joakim Soria. The two-time All-Star saved 143 games in the past four seasons. But he went down with an injury in the spring, requiring Tommy John surgery that knocked him out for the season before it even started.
Thankfully for Kansas City, the team signed another former All-Star, Jonathan Broxton, in the offseason. Broxton stepped in and ran a strong leg, picking up 23 saves. He was even named a candidate for the All-Star Final Vote. Broxton's success became a selling point, though, and he was traded to Cincinnati at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline for a pair of highly ranked pitching prospects.
In six months, the Royals had two All-Star closers, but when the calendar flipped to August, neither was on the active roster.
It was time for Holland to take the baton.
The 26-year-old was installed as the closer on July 31. Since then, he's flourished, converting all 13 of his save opportunities and posting a 1.40 ERA. He's struck out 25 batters and allowed just three runs in 19 1/3 innings.
"It was unfortunate we lost Soria," Holland said. "Then Broxton stepped in and did a great job, was an All-Star caliber closer for us. Trades happen. You hate to lose a guy like that. He's a good guy and a good teammate and a good pitcher, too. I hate to see those guys go, but it's a new opportunity -- try to make the most of it."
Holland wasn't entirely new to the ballgame-saving scene. He picked up four saves late last season and 25 in his Minor League career. But through much of his big league career, he's pitched in the innings before the ninth. It's those moments that Holland credits as the key to his success as a closer.
"[Royals manager Ned Yost] does a great job putting you in those tough situations periodically," Holland said. "Everyone down there's been in tight spots late in games, so you kind of just learn from those experiences and learn from those players."
Learning has been a big part of the season for Holland and the other pitchers in the Royals' bullpen, a young but talented unit. Entering play Monday, the Royals ranked third in the American League with a 3.01 bullpen ERA.
Holland said he learned a lot from the two closers who preceded him. Soria and Broxton, he said, took leadership roles and taught him things that he now uses in his role of closer.
"You just watch those guys and how they go about their business," Holland said. "Both of them are tremendous competitors. Broxton was a little more flamboyant on the mound, I guess you could say, than Soria. But they both hated to lose. They loved to win. But you wouldn't ever know it if they lost or won. And that's big, playing 162 games. Those guys didn't blow many, but when they did, they answered the questions. They were accountable, and they showed up the next day ready to work and ready to get the job done again."
Soria and Broxton aren't the only veteran voices that have left the Kansas City 'pen. Bullpen coach Steve Foster was named a special assistant to the general manager two weeks ago, and now he's gone, too. But Holland has learned from the example they set and picked up where they left off.
When Holland got the job, he said pitching the ninth was just like pitching in other innings. Has he found that to be the case?
"I haven't really noticed anything different, other than you've just got to be able to keep your composure a little bit when the crowd gets excited and stuff," Holland said. "But those situations arise in the sixth, seventh, eighth inning as well. Being able to do that last year and much of this year has helped a lot, working into that role."
One trait Holland and Broxton share is the ability to close a game out even after putting runners on base. Holland has allowed a total of 13 baserunners in his 13 save chances, but he's yet to blow a save since assuming the job.
After Holland got out of a particularly hairy situation in mid-August, Yost said that's something that just can't be taught.
"I don't know if you can teach that. I think that's kind of something you have or you don't have: the ability to slow the game," Yost said. "And you can get better at it, but for a guy to teach you how to stay calm in those situations, I don't know if that's teachable. I think he learned a little bit of it through experience, but I think you either have that makeup trait or you don't."
Holland hasn't displayed the -- to borrow one of his words -- flamboyant celebrations of some closers around baseball. He doesn't have a theme song like Mariano Rivera, a trademark arm motion like Fernando Rodney or wild gesticulations like Jose Valverde. But that doesn't matter to him.
"I try not to get too amped up," Holland said. "I think everybody that goes out on the mound late in the game, their adrenaline's pumping. And just because you don't yell and scream and fist-pump doesn't mean you don't want to. I just try to keep my composure and just go out there and win a ballgame. When the third out's over, I come in the clubhouse, celebrate shortly and wake up the next day ready to do it again."
This is business to Holland, and he wants to take care of it (which actually brings to mind a possible theme song) without theatrics or choreography. He's grabbed the baton in this Kansas City closer relay and gotten the job done, so far, with the same All-Star-caliber performance as those before him.
"I think that's the goal for everyone," Holland said. "I think anyone in our bullpen now could close at some point in their career. A lot of times, it's an opportunity, and I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity."
Vinnie Duber is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less