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Holland not taking increased job security for granted

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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- A year ago, Joakim Soria was the Royals' closer. Elbow surgery intervened, and when the season began, Jonathan Broxton was the closer. A trade intervened, and at midseason, Greg Holland was the closer.

And in 2013?

"There's no question; there's no competition for closer," manager Ned Yost said.

Holland, third in the line of succession last year, is now the man and with good reason. After Broxton was dealt to Cincinnati, Holland converted the first 13 save chances he was given.

So Spring Training this year is vastly different for Holland. Or is it?

"I really don't think of it as any different camp. I just want to prove myself again, and I think being competitive, like all of us are in the bullpen, you just want to do better the following year," Holland said. "You always have something to prove, always want to get better. That's the mentality I take."

Last season began badly for Holland, and he looked nothing like the dominating right-hander who hung up a 1.80 ERA plus a 5-1 record and four saves as a rookie. In his first seven appearances of 2012, Holland had an 11.37 ERA and two losses, and he was being hammered at a .406 clip.

At that point, Holland acknowledged that the back of his left rib cage was hurting, and onto the disabled list he went.

"I tried to pitch through it, and it's probably a blessing in disguise, because if I was getting outs, I might have waited to say something and been on the DL for six or eight weeks instead of just two or three," Holland said. "It got to the point where I wasn't helping the team win, I was in pain and we had to address it."

Exactly three weeks later he was back in action and struck out the side in his inning of return.

"It's always nice to feel normal again instead of being out there trying to fight something," he said.

Holland was back on track and, for the rest of the season, he had a 7-2 record, 16 saves, a 2.08 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings -- as well as a greatly relieved pitching coach, Dave Eiland.

Eiland adjusted Holland's delivery to reduce the pressure and torque that was causing his ribcage problem. It also improved the control on his pitches. Holland needed no improvement on his fiercely determined approach to his job.

"His makeup is off the charts, and that's something you can't really teach and coach," Eiland said. "He's blessed to have that, and we're blessed to have a guy that has that in that role."

Although Yost dismisses any idea of competition for the closer's job, Holland insists he's not taking anything for granted.

"You never just want to take the notion that you have a job, because you can lose it real quick," Holland said.

That's especially true, he avers, because the Royals' bullpen is brimming with considerable talent and such fixtures as Aaron Crow, Tim Collins or Kelvin Herrera could easily step into the closer's role.

"That's the good thing about having a real strong bullpen. We've seen it happen -- you can go from an eighth-inning guy to the fifth-inning guy real quick down there," Holland said. "And that's the way it should be. We don't have anybody that's really obligated to a lot of money down there in the bullpen, so you kind of ride the hot hand. And Ned will do that. Last year, he really didn't have to do that because we had four or five guys that he could throw in the eighth inning."

Or the ninth inning, for that matter. It's just that Holland did it so well that no change was needed.

"He got some good experience last year," Eiland said. "He got into some tough situations out there, and he had some easy saves and he had some hard ones where he really had to work for it with guys on base and pitching out of jams. And that's only going to make him better as we move forward. He's right where we want him to be right now."

Last year's bullpen was often overworked as the Royals' starting pitchers combined for just 890 innings, second fewest in the American League. The infusion of James Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis plus the retention of Jeremy Guthrie figures to boost that total this year, saving wear and tear on the relievers.

The best-case scenario, of course, would be to have five starters delivering 200 innings each.

"I think we've probably got seven or eight starters that can get close to that number," Holland said. "And I guess I'm hoping it's awfully boring down there in the bullpen for most of the year."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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